A version of this article appeared in the Huffington Post.
One of the most defining moments of my college career is a time I don’t often think about anymore. At the time, of course, it was completely nerve-wracking. It was the middle of the first semester of my sophomore year, and I had decided to drop my Organic Chemistry class. In order to do so, I needed to have my professor sign the necessary paperwork.
The professor was funny and engaging, and his enthusiasm made my decision all the more difficult. It’s not you, I wanted to say, it’s me. Regardless of his efforts, I spent most of the thrice-weekly fifty-minute classes and the corresponding four-hour labs feeling as though I was in a foreign country without a map. After what seemed like a lot of soul-searching for a nineteen-year-old, I knew I wanted to drop the class and consequently did not want to be pre-med (Organic Chemistry is one of the hallmark pre-med requirements).
I was shaking a bit when I walked into the professor’s office, and he probably sensed my impending tears when he invited me to sit and chat. He encouraged me to think of dropping his class not as a failure, but as a new beginning full of possibility. He asked me open-ended questions that forced me to reflect, and I remember walking back to my dorm room on that sunny October afternoon feeling relieved and inspired. I finally felt as though I could have a college experience based on my own personal interests instead of preconceived notions of what I could or should be doing.
Not long thereafter, I discovered that my school, Duke University, allowed students to apply and design their own major under a curriculum called, “Program II.” Interested students had to design their major, find an advisor, and defend the program to the Dean. I like to think of as training for my future career as an entrepreneur. My parents, who had immigrated to the United States years earlier, were unsure of what a “self-designed major” meant, and simply hoped I would be gainfully employed with health insurance upon graduation. They also knew they didn’t have all the answers on how I should run my own life, and asked me open-ended questions on how I wanted to become engaged and involved given my personal interests (they also asked questions like “How are you going to be financially self-sufficient?”).
Since graduating from college, I have designed and run my own successful business, authored two books (and am working on my third), managed Millennials, attended graduate school, worked with tens of thousands of teens and parents, and spoken at junior high schools, high schools, universities and corporations throughout the country and abroad. Few, if any, of these experiences would have happened if I hadn’t dropped Organic Chemistry that day.
In my work, I like to say, “Ask open-ended questions without expectation.” There are so many thoughts on how to encourage leadership for girls and young women, with the latest being the collaboration between Sheryl Sandberg’s LeanIn.org and the Girl Scouts to “Ban Bossy.” So many of my own greatest leadership opportunities and happenings have grown from conversations – including that encouraging conversation with my Organic Chemistry professor who reframed my thinking to discover my own sense of personal purpose.
Last month, I returned to campus to be a panelist at Duke Women’s Weekend. The panel was entitled “What is your Question?,” and was based on an exercise Duke University Dean Laurie Patton does to encourage students to align their actions around their own personal values. As preparation, I was asked to come up with the question I center my own life’s work around. Other panelists’ questions included, “What does healthy feel like?” “What is success?” “How do I live a life with purpose?” My question, after some reflection, is “How do I encourage and inspire others to become leaders in their own lives?”
The weekend had over 300 women in attendance, and each attendee contributed their own fascinating story and perspective. I had conversations with current undergraduates and women who graduated from the Women’s College over fifty years ago. What struck me more than any accomplishments or accolades of this highly talented group, though, was the thoughtfulness of our conversations about life choices, family decisions, corporate opportunities, and personal challenges. When we are younger, it can seem easy to borrow someone else’s blueprint for success, and as we age most of us realize there is no one “right” decision or life path. So many attendees used their personal experiences to become authentic leaders in their own lives – and in doing so, ultimately created positive ripple effects in the lives of so many others.
As parents and educators, one of the most powerful things we can do is give our daughters the opportunity to start asking questions around personal purpose, leadership, and values earlier in life. What are the qualities that make a good leader? What are your most important values? How do you espouse those values in your daily life? Often we don’t face these questions until we are in some way forced, as I was that day my sophomore year. We hear so much about the importance of developing girls’ leadership abilities, and it can be easy to forget how leadership is most powerful when it develops from within. The earlier we start asking open-ended questions to encourage reflection, the more powerful our next generation can be in creating their own blueprint for personal success and happiness. And, in doing so, they become even more empowered to create those positive ripple effects in the lives of others.