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The Best Advice I Ever Got

A version of this post also appeared on LinkedIn.

The best piece of advice I’ve ever received was also my first. I was in the first grade, and my mother and I were riding a trolley car on a Saturday morning in the West Philadelphia neighborhood not far from the University of Pennsylvania. I remember animatedly telling my mother how much my teacher Miss Invernessy loved me and boasting that I was the teacher’s pet.

My mother listened patiently, but what I didn’t know was that Miss Invernessy’s own mother was riding in the seat behind us. She heard everything. On Monday, Miss Invernessy kept me after class. After she told me, to my total humiliation, what her mother had overheard, I expected her to scold me for my hubris. Instead, she said, “The important thing is that you work for yourself, not for my approval. Not for my praise. But that you come to feel that doing well matters to you, and you become your most loyal fan, as well as your most severe critic.”

“Work for yourself, not for anyone’s approval. Not for praise. Come to feel that doing well matters to you, and that you become your most loyal fan, and your most severe critic.”

It was a powerful lesson that I have never forgotten, and it drove me to be highly self-disciplined, pushing myself to deliver beyond what others expected of me, whether it was in the classroom, in my research, or as the leader of an Ivy League university and now The Rockefeller Foundation.

But for every good piece of advice I’ve received over my lifetime, I’ve received some tremendously bad advice. One came from a chairman from a global recruiting firm. Upon hearing that I was becoming the first woman to head an Ivy League University, he advised me not to do anything that would jeopardize my “great reputation.” I was flattered that he thought I had a reputation to jeopardize—but as I thought more about this advice, the more annoyed I got. What did that even mean? That I shouldn’t take risks? That I shouldn’t stand up for my convictions if it ruffled feathers? Would he have made such a suggestion if I was a man? I left that lunch more determined to follow my own compass.

I came up against some more bad advice upon my arrival to Penn. I was extremely discouraged to see the plight of the neighborhood around the university, the same neighborhood where I had grown up and attended public school. It was awful seeing most businesses closed, houses boarded up, one in five children failing. I wanted to do something. I was advised that that wasn’t my role—I had come to run an Ivy League institution and I should pay attention to doing that.

Two months later, a graduate student was murdered not far from our campus, and I threw out all the advice. We partnered with the neighborhood to set out a five-part strategy to rebuild it in safety and security, with commercial and retail development, job training for local residents, high-functioning public schools and attractive, affordable housing. We initially financed a lot of it alone, but ultimately we gained believers. Together, we transformed the neighborhood, and in the process, showed our students what civic engagement could accomplish.

By ignoring the bad advice, I learned the value of taking risks. I learned the value of perseverance. That when you’re willing to challenge yourself, to push yourself—to go places others wouldn’t go, or try things others might not try—that’s an important part of success. If you’re risk averse and more focused on getting people to like you, you might not be developing good coping skills or learn to be resilient in the face of adversity. You may be safe, but you may never become brilliantly successful.

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