At school when I was 16-years-old, I was told that something I wanted to do was only for stupid girls. Luckily I had the support of a great teacher who broke the rules and made it happen for me. That started me on a journey of recognizing how important it is to be inspired by mentors.
Everybody loves a good mentor and to date—in my career—I’ve had 5 famous mentors: John Lennon, Tom Hanks, Steve Jobs, William James and Grace Hopper. So how do I have friends in high places? Actually, I’ve never met them and they have no idea they’ve been my mentors. It’s their words, in the form of quotes, that have inspired me.
I don’t know about you, but I’m a sucker for a great quote. It seems that I’m not the only one—take a look at Twitter and you’ll see a huge number of handles relating to quotes. Do a quick search on Google and you’ll find endless “Top Quotes” lists. Go to the Forbes home page and you’ll be greeted by the “Quote of the Day.”
Why do we love quotes so much?
Quite simply, they inspire us. In Why Inspiration Matters, Scott Barry Kaufman explains: “In a culture obsessed with measuring talent and ability, we often overlook the important role of inspiration.”
Inspiration isn’t all squishy stuff—it can drive very real results. Kaufman’s article details studies that prove that inspiration facilitates progress toward goals, promotes creativity, and even increases well-being.
That works for me! For much of my life, I have turned to quotes when I need inspiration, or a mantra, or to steel myself in challenging situations. Here are my five personal favourites and some insight into how they’ve served me.
1. “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” ―John Lennon
In work and in life, I believe we should have a direction, not necessarily a plan. I’ve found that if you set yourself a direction, your brain will work to make it happen in ways that you probably can’t or didn’t imagine. This has happened to me a few times.
For example, years ago I wanted to work in Germany, but was told I needed to “earn my stripes in the UK” before getting a transfer to Germany. As it turned out, I ended up being sponsored by a Swiss German company at university, getting a work placement with them in Germany during my “gap year,” and making contacts then that eventually led me to starting work in Germany the weekend after I graduated. I couldn’t have planned or predicted that path, but it perfectly matched my direction.
It happened again when I wanted to do the doctorate. The seed was sown by a marketing professor I was working with. At first my head told me that I couldn’t afford it and that I’d have to do an MBA first, but gradually the stronger voice said that it perfectly matched my ambition to be a ‘marketing guru’ and before I knew it, I’d found a way!
It wasn’t plain sailing from there though and that brings me to my next quote from Tom Hanks.
2. “It’s supposed to be hard. If it were easy, everyone would do it.” ―Tom Hanks in “A League of Their Own”
This quote got me through my toughest mental endurance challenge and my most demanding physical challenge: getting my doctorate and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. I managed both by telling myself that each step, however small, got me closer to my goal.
When it comes to business, sometimes we set goals for ourselves that seem too enormous and therefore unachievable. However, by breaking a big task down into bite-sized chunks, we can stay motivated over long distances or periods of time. Let’s not forget that all achievement comes with hard work.
Of course, it helps if you’re passionate about what you do and that brings me to my next quote from Steve Jobs.
3. “The only way to do great work is to love what you do.” ―Steve Jobs
I have made “love what you do” my mantra because life is too short to do a job that doesn’t inspire you or work with people who don’t inspire you. Loving what you do does wonders for your psyche. According to Paula Davis-Laack, loving your job drives engagement which is defined as “a positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind that is characterized by vigor (high levels of energy and mental resilience), dedication (being strongly involved and challenged by your work), and absorption (when you’re working, you’re in the zone and time passes quickly).”
Everyone needs to feel like they make a difference. This brings me to my next quote from William James.
4. “Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” ―William James
We all need to feel that what we do makes a difference. I’m not the classical type of female that does well in big, corporate, alpha-male environments. I’m very softly spoken and struggle to get my voice heard in a room full of loud people. I am never going to be that loud, opinionated person in a crowded room. I’m more of a thinker and a listener and when I do say something, I like to make it really count. I’m also really good at networking and collaborating with others. And because I don’t have a big ego and genuinely want to help other people achieve their dreams, people want to work for me.
Through social media I’ve found my voice in other ways. It’s all about knowing your own strengths and playing to them. Think about what you’re good at and make it part of your personal brand.
Sometimes it pays to go outside your comfort zone! That brings me to my last and favourite quote from Grace Hopper, a formal US Navy Admiral and one of the first computer programmers.
5. “It is better to beg forgiveness, than ask permission.” ― Grace Murray Hopper
At school, the pupils who weren’t destined for university were trained as typists. I wanted to learn how to type but was told I couldn’t. Luckily the teacher who ran the typing class was also my economics teacher. She promised to smuggle me into the class and enter me for the exam. She said, “We won’t ask for permission, we’ll beg forgiveness” when you pass the exam. Typing turned out to be one of the most useful skills I’ve ever learned. Not only did I get paid work as a typist at the local hospital during the school holidays, but I can touch-type at speed on a computer keyboard—a very valuable capability in our digital world.
This quote has served me well throughout my career. After all, if we play it safe all the time, we might never try something truly innovative. Given the fast-paced environment that we work in, we often don’t have the time to hold off on decisions until permission has been granted. That’s not to say that begging for forgiveness hasn’t been tough for a rule-follower like me! But I’ve found that the reward usually outweighs the risk. Sometimes you just need to get started, take some risk and then ask forgiveness. What’s the worst that can happen? Don’t quote me on that one!
In summary, here is my unconventional career advice:
- Have a clear direction, not a detailed plan
- Take one step at a time when things are hard
- Love what you do
- Believe that you make a difference
- Take action now – ask for forgiveness later
I hope you’ve enjoyed my favourite quotes. If you’d like to hear more, please refer to my recent TEDx Talk on “Unconventional Career Advice”.
Dr. Christine Bailey is the Cisco Marketing Director, EMEA & Russia, and is also the global co-lead of Connected Women at Cisco.