‘What I wish I knew at 17’

Ask a clutch of highly successful women — from sports, the arts, politics, academia and the media –what they wished they’d known at 17 and what advice they’d give young people today, and you’ll get everything from nurturing multiple dreams to daring to fail. 
Oh yes, and smelling those proverbial roses.
 

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis at age 3. (Family photo.)

Several of these women shared their wisdom and war stories Wednesday at a Washington Post Live forum, ”Leading The Way: Women in 2012,” attended by several hundred spectators including a number of high school students.

 
  ”Whatever you do, give it your best. Not everyone will understand what you have to offer but keep your head high,” urged Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, a former California congresswoman. Angered by high school advisers who told this smart Latina she wasn’t college material and should thus become a secretary, she studied hard and proved them wrong. “Now, 30 years later, I can say my title is Secretary,” she quipped. Secretary, as in, a member of President Obama’s cabinet. 
 
Her advice to those coming up now: “Keep trying. Never lose heart.”  When awful things happen “be like a sponge. Soak up as much as you can, then wring out all the bad stuff.”
 
Andrea Mitchell, chief foreign affairs correspondent for NBC News, who described herself a “failed violinist,” started in journalism at her college radio station. In the sexist 1960s, she had to fight for a job as an overnight “copy boy” at a Washington TV station. She spent decades at NBC honing her craft and hiring and promoting other women. Earlier this week, halfway through an evening broadcast she noticed that all four Washington bureau women “were on the air, bam, bam bam,” so she sent them a message taking note of this minor milestone. “It was very cool.”
 
The advice Mitchell would have welcomed at 17?  ”Don’t let anyone tell you that you ‘can’t’ succeed or overcome a challenge because it hasn’t been done before. And never permit others to define your goals — decide what you want and go for it.”  
 
Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, credits her father with teaching her to “aim for the stars so that you can reach the treetops, and at least you will get off the ground.” At 10, she was conducting studies of bumblebees, but found her passion in math.  
 
One of her professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told her, “‘Colored girls should learn a trade,’ and I decided I would learn a trade: physics.”  To motivate young people today, “You have to meet them where they are, you have to make them understand their talents” in order to help them make a difference.
 
Nancy-Ann DeParle, deputy White House chief of staff and an assistant to the president, who earlier headed the office of health reform, was always told by her single mom that “the sky was the limit.” Since money was tight DeParle also was also told she’d have to study hard and win scholarships to achieve her dreams of being a lawyer and working in the White House.  Her mother’s death when DeParle was 17 pushed her to work diligently, perhaps too diligently, which explains today’s advice: “Take time to smell the roses.”
 
Susan Lyne, Gilt Groupe chairwoman, believes in serial careers.  Fired as the Disney/ABC entertainment president for prime time programs, her revenge came within months when three of her shows became huge hits: “Desperate housewives,” “Gray’s Anatomy,” and “Lost.” She also was CEO of Martha Stewart Omnimedia when the company namesake went to prison. ”Your working life will likely span half a century…You have time — time to take some risks, make mistakes, pick yourself up, start over or start something new. Don’t obsess about making the right career decision as if there is only one.”
 
Mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves grew up in one of the poorest sections of Washington but her mother instilled learning and diligence in both her children. One music teacher helped
Graves find and develop her voice from kindergarten through 12th grade. At the city’s performing arts high school, she heard a recording by mezzo soprano Leontyne Price that changed her life. “This woman who looked like me and this art form I had never heard of before” was like a bolt of lightning.  She wishes someone had told her to “Trust that all is in order and that things will work out without pushing.”
 
Second-term Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.), who at 34 is youngest woman in Congress, had to bolt early from the morning event to cast a vote. But before leaving she noted that at an orientation session for House spouses (mostly wives of older congressmen), hers lamented there should be a Congressional “man cave” for husbands.  ”Honey,” she recalled telling him, “no offense but the entire Capitol is a man cave.”  
 
The advice she could have used as a teen was: “First find a hero. Take courage and inspiration from someone else’s example. Write it down, post it on your wall and don’t be afraid to tell it to folks. Because without vision, you’ll go nowhere.”
 
 Marne Levine, Facebook’s vice president for global public policy, loves the quirky office posters commanding the troops to “think wrong,” “move fast and break things,” and “take risks.” The  former chief of staff for Obama’s National Economic Council and for Harvard President Larry Summers, is particularly fond of the poster that asks, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” She called it a total game changer. “When you put fear aside and follow your convictions, you get to try and achieve so many more things.”   As for Levine’s advice to others: “Listen to your gut. Are decisions more expansive or narrowing?”
 

Michelle Kwan (Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week)

She may be the most decorated figure skater in U.S .history, but these days Michelle Kwan is senior adviser and the first public diplomacy envoy at State Department, which explains her philosophy: “Not to be afraid of having more than one dream. What you learn in sports — hard work, focus, dedication, failing and getting back up — you can apply to all your dreams….The important thing is not to be afraid; give something new a try and sometimes you’ll surprise yourself and land on your feet.” 

 
And if you mess up, says Kwan, “You power through it and pick yourself back up.”
 
If there was a quote of the day, it came from Facebook’s Levine, who described her career path that included postponing grad school to work in a 1988 presidential campaign. “I have meandered with a sense of purpose,” she said to audible audience murmurs.   Several participants, including Kwan, eagerly embraced it for themselves.
 
We should all be so lucky.
 
 
Former Washington Post and PoliticsDaily.com columnist and correspondent Annie Groer writes about politics, culture, design and 21st century manners. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Town & Country, More and other publications. 

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