10 Lessons Learned to Conquer Your Career

Anthony Quintano via Flickr

Loneliness gripped me as soon as I stepped off the airplane in Seattle. A feeling of dread and uncertainty had been gnawing at me for past few days, forming an undercurrent in my life, a minor, but constant disturbance. This was different. An abrupt, pronounced, and overwhelming feeling of loneliness. I couldn’t pinpoint exactly why.

Traveling, meeting new people, and learning has always energized me. I love everything about it, and the Forte Women’s MBA Leadership Conference brings together all three of these aspects in an area that I’m incredibly passionate about — the development and advancement of women business leaders.

I should be excited. I was excited two months ago when I signed up. So what changed? Why was I feeling so deflated?

It was the last third of Ramadan — the last 10 days. The last 10 days are the most special and always feel like the most fleeting. These are­ the days to reinvigorate your focus on faith. I was also painfully aware that this Ramadan would probably be my last one at home with my family in Houston for the foreseeable future.

Was I prioritizing my career over my family and faith? I wondered as I walked through the Seattle airport following the large black and white signs pointing to baggage claim. Will this weekend be worth it?

Self-doubt can lead you down a destructive path — a path I was unwilling to succumb to this weekend. I pulled myself out of this thought-process, and I whispered a prayer, “God, guide me and make this weekend meaningful.”

I told myself: Whether this weekend will be worth it or not is now in my hands. I am here. I will be fully present. I will form new friendships and learn as much as possible. I will make sure it is a great experience.

And it was. The Forte Foundation brought together over 200 fabulous speakers, moderators, and attendees to create a space for an inspiring, educational, and thought-provoking conference that would empower attendees to #ConquerYourCareer. Here are my 10 favorite lessons learned and reflections from the weekend:

1. Systemize self-reflection

Life will throw all sorts of curveballs at you. Vastly different opportunities will constantly present themselves. It’s easy to think you’re in control and navigating when you’re actually haphazardly taking every other turn or exit.

To live a life of integrity and continue progressing toward your goals, be intentional and clear about what matters to you. Live by design, not by default.

Consistently reflect on and articulate your values, motivations, strengths, goals and how you spend your time.

Life only gets busier, so as early as possible, find a process or structure to embed and document self-reflection into your life. Once you find what works for you, don’t let go.

I started this journey of regular self-reflection and documentation by spending ten minutes a day journaling this past May. It was my 30-challenge for the month, and the benefits I reaped from the process surprised me. This was a much-needed reminder to start again.

2. Travel light

When you take on too many goals or priorities, you are traveling with a heavy burden that will inevitably weigh you down. Use self-reflection to help you prioritize your goals. Choose two of these goals (one personal / one professional) that are the most important for you to achieve now, and commit fully. Write these down somewhere you can see them daily.

If there is an activity not directly associated with this priority list, chose not to do it or minimize the time you spend on it. Adopt systems that will help you do this. For example, try the “yes __ and ___” paradigm when asked to do a new task:

  • “Yes, I can fold the clothes, and you’ll do the dishes.”
  • “Yes, I can do a project, and I’ll need a day off.”

Even if you’re passionate about an opportunity presented to you, there’s not enough time in the day to do everything.

Stick to your priority list, and stop feeling guilty about everything else.

When one of the speakers said this last line, I thought she was directly speaking to me!

3. Never simply accept no

Felicia Yue, one of the speakers who is a Senior Manager for Product Management at Amazon, shared a story about how she landed one of her first jobs at a sports startup.

She emailed the company every week for six months and received no reply. Instead of giving up, she decided to show up at their corporate office and ran into the company’s founders. They gave her an on-spot interview that included a 20-question quiz.

She “bombed” it and was told to leave. Instead of “accepting no,” she negotiated with the founders to let her work there for two months without pay to demonstrate that she could learn the skills needed to excel in the job. In those two months, she proved herself to be a valuable employee and was hired for a full-time position.

The key to achieving success is your frame of mind. If you tell yourself that success is the only option, then when someone says no to you, you will come up with an alternative — a Plan B — to achieve that same goal.

4. Integrate nudges in your life toward your goals

Claire Shimpan, the keynote speaker on the first day, referenced Google’s nudge program and how we can use “nudges” in our lives to help us pursue our goals.

Google noticed a large disparity in the number of female employees applying for internal postings. After digging into the data, Google discovered that research shows that women often need a nudge in the right direction to push themselves towards their goals. With this in mind, Google instituted a program to send an email to all employees whenever new jobs were posted. Female applicant rates increased substantially when emails for new jobs were sent and decreased again when emails were not sent.

The moral of this story is that we need to create nudges in our lives that push ourselves out of our comfort zone and toward our goals.

I plan to create a vision board to put up in my room in Boston to be an ever-present reminder of long-term goals and push myself to pursue them.

5. Get good at asking

In the Women Entrepreneurs session, one of the speakers explained that there are three key ingredients to adopt if you want time or help from someone who you aspire to learn from, such as a CEO, startup founder, industry expert:

  1. A strong introduction will most likely take you much farther than a cold-call email. Build a network to create access to the individuals you aspire to learn from.
  2. Make it easy. Don’t ask to meet at a coffee shop. Offer to come to their office or schedule a phone call.
  3. Show you’re committed and have a disciplined request. On any given day, these individuals are flooded with asks, so do not ask to “pick their brain.” Show what you’ve done, and be specific about what you need. “I want to do ABC. I have already done XYZ. To more forward, I really want to learn more about H, L, and M from you.”

6. Confidence = do more + think less + be authentic

When I first heard our keynote address would be on the topic of confidence, I almost rolled my eyes. “How often will we talk about this?” I thought to myself. “Aren’t we passed this?

I spoke, or in this case thought, too soon. In the days leading to the conference, I was dealing with a situation that shook my confidence, so the keynote addressed was incredibly timely and meaningful. Below are a few of the highlights:

  • Confidence and action have a symbiotic relationship. You cannot have one without the other. Confidence is an energy that turns our thoughts into action. It fuels our ability to act without hesitation. Taking action breeds confidence. To become confident, you must act. Rewire your brain to habituate yourself to act and take risks. How do you embrace risk? Tap into the “we.”
Stop focusing on yourself and think about your ability to have an impact. Ask yourself: How are you helping people by taking this step? Harness that energy to move forward.
  • Fix your inner monologue. We are often our own worst critics and greatest inhibitors. Studies show we need seven positive thoughts to counter every negative thought.
Become a public defender for yourself in your head.
  • Rewire how you define success. You will make mistakes. You will fail. Don’t just accept this; cherish this. Failure is a part of the journey to success. If you’re afraid of failure, you’ll never succeed.
  • Don’t lose who you are. Be comfortable in your unique style. Tune out people that make you doubt yourself or want you to conform.
  • Take the time to savor and internalize your achievements. Celebrate them. Let them sink in. This builds confidence, increases self-satisfaction, and ultimately, refuels you for future growth.
Don’t be too busy to enjoy your accomplishments.
  • You build confidence not just for yourself. Confidence is contagious. Your confidence in yourself can inspire confidence in everyone around you.

7. Cultivate your community.

  • We don’t climb high mountains alone. It takes a team. If you are not in a fully supportive environment, change your environment. Surround yourself with people who won’t let you quit. Build friendships with diverse, but like-minded individuals, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. You can’t be an expert in everything.
Stop thinking you can do it all alone, and reach out to others.
  • Learn skills by watching people that excel. Study others. Be attentive. When you’re watching a good presentation, take notes on the presenter’s techniques and what resonates with you. When you see others do something well, try to emulate them without losing your own personal style.
  • Tell everyone what you want. You never know how you’ll be connected to the right organization, job, or opportunity. Be transparent and keep voicing what you want.
  • Correct people if their behavior hurts you. If you don’t speak up and correct people, their behavior won’t change, and you will keep getting hurt.

8. You don’t need to start with passion.

In the Women Entrepreneurs session, there was a lot of great advice given, but the three that resonated with me most were:

  • You don’t need to start with passion. Start with curiosity and frustration towards a problem. Passion will follow.
Don’t pay attention to the competition. If you’re paying attention to the competition, you’re not paying attention to what you’re doing. Create a unique experience that no one can replicate.
  • Persist. You are a founder because you chose to be a founder.

9. If you want to break into product management and you have a non-technical background, learn the basics of code — enough to understand the difference between a hard tech problem and a simple tech problem.

This advice also came from Felicia Yue. She mentioned that when she’s working with a developer, it’s important for her to understand if the timeline given to her is realistic. Is this actually a six-week project or is it really a six-day project?

Arm yourself with enough knowledge to be able to influence these decisions. Brush up on coding skills by taking an online program through Khan Academy or an in-person class if it is offered in your city. The teacher and teaching style matters more than the language. All of the languages are useful, so you can’t really go wrong. Find a learning methodology that suits your learning style, and dedicate time to it.

Throughout the conference, I was a sponge, and these nuggets of wisdom were my water. I was absorbing as much as I could and loving it, but we all have our limits.

Adjusting to 17 hour fasts that lasted from 3:00 am to 9:10 pm wore me down. On Friday, the first day of the conference, exhaustion pulled at me. My eyes couldn’t stay open during the last session, Supply Chain & Operations, and a headache started to form.

This is not working,” I thought while trying to force myself to sit upright in my seat. “How rude would it be if I snuck out? . . . Probably not as rude as falling asleep.” I deduced, or really convinced myself, and snuck out.

With the image of a comfy blanket and a warm bed beckoning me, I made my way back to my friend/acquaintance Hina’s apartment. Hina and I have known each other for a little more than a year. Both of us served in leadership roles for Muppies, a global professional organization for Muslims, and during the past year, we interacted occasionally through e-mail, phone calls, and social media. However, we had actually never met in person. In spite of this, Hina offered for me to stay at her place while I was in Seattle for the conference, and I gratefully accepted.

When I returned to Hina’s place, I stumbled into the guest bedroom, closed the blinds, and fell into the bed. Of course, as fate would have it, I couldn’t fall asleep. I tossed and turned until I finally gave up and went outside about an hour later. Hina was home watching TV, and we spent the next two hours chatting and catching up. I thought I was too tired to function, but spending time with her made my headache disappear. I was reenergized and so grateful to have her company.

“So where do you want to go for iftaar (meal to break fast) tomorrow?” I asked curled up on her comfy, teal chair in the living room.

“Oh, I’m cooking! I already went grocery shopping.” She replied and began telling me about the meal she had planned.

Earlier that week, when I suggested over email that we should share a meal on Saturday night, I expected us to go out to dinner. Instead, the next evening Hina and her husband, Nowfal, went above and beyond, cooking a two-course meal with four different appetizers for iftaar and an amazing dinner. They wouldn’t let me help set up or even clean up. I was touched.

Words can’t express how much that weekend with them meant to me. It was not just about the food or the place to stay. Hina and Nowfal welcomed me with open arms, which was especially meaningful during Ramadan. They never made me feel out of place or like a nuisance. It taught me the most important lesson from the weekend:

10. Be open-hearted with your generosity, and never underestimate your impact.

They had no idea how much their actions would impact me; they were simply being welcoming.

But they gave me home away from home, the value of which cannot be overstated.

As I sat in my Uber on the way to the airport for my flight back to Houston the next morning, I thought about my uncertainty when I first arrived and how God answered my prayers. I share the details of this generosity because I hope I never forget it — along with the many other lessons learned — and I aspire to reach this level of generosity one day, inshaAllah (God willing).

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