What I'd tell my younger self

Stick at school. Don’t make the same mistakes. Just be yourself. What advice would you give the younger you? To celebrate International Women's Day (8 March), we reveal what five female leaders in their fields would tell their younger selves.

Written by Mind Tools
Published 04 March 2021
What I'd tell my younger self

Billie Jean King – tennis player

Starting out in tennis, Billie Jean King noticed every player was white. Even their shoes, clothes and tennis balls were white. She says, “So, I made my promise that day, that I would fight for the rest of my life for equality for everyone.”

In 1968, King helped form the WTA Tour and fought for equal pay for women and men. In 1973, former pro Bobby Riggs challenged King to a game – claiming even a man his age (55) could beat the best female players. King accepted the challenge, dubbed 'The Battle of the Sexes' – and won.

Today, King is an icon for the LGBT+ community. She says, “I would tell my younger self, ‘You’re going to go through a tough time with your sexuality… but everything is going to turn out alright.'” Now in her 70s, King continues to use her success and status to champion equality.

Reflect: What causes or values matter most to you? How might you champion them at work or in the wider world?

Mary Barra – CEO General Motors

In 2014, Mary Barra became the first female CEO of a major car manufacturer. Since then, she has invested billions in emerging technologies  and innovations including electric vehicles, self-driving cars and a ride-share service called Maven. She also helped GM to rank number one in 2018’s Global Report on Gender Quality. In the report, GM was only one of two global businesses that have no gender pay gap.

If Barra had the chance to give herself some advice at the beginning of her career, it would be “embrace fear rather than run from it”. She says, "Some of the best learning opportunities I've had in my career are when I initially went, 'You want me to do what?'” She advises that seizing these opportunities is “going to give you such a foundation to move on". [1]

Reflect: How do you feel when you're asked to do something new or difficult? What strategies could you use to help you overcome any negative thoughts or fears?

Mary J. Blige – musician

As if growing up in The Bronx during the 70s wasn’t difficult enough, Blige was tough on herself. She says, “The first thing I’d say to a 16-year-old me is, ‘Stop playing yourself down, because you’re going to be someone that people love and admire.'”

But with that success comes responsibility. Blige believes music builds or destroys, saying, “I’ve done 13 albums in my career and what it has taught me is this: music is one of the biggest forms of communication. I have to be careful with what I’m putting out there because there are people out there who are listening to music at home and it’s helping them to stay alive or to get out of a bad relationship.”

Reflect: What does your work say about you? And how could you use your position to communicate what you believe in?

Dame Stella Rimington – Former Director General of MI5

When Stella Rimington was unveiled as MI5’s first female Director General, it was news to her friends and family. She’d kept this state secret until the UK’s Security Service announced its new head. It was a huge leap from MI5 in the 70s “when women were treated like second-class citizens”.

As well as working during Cold War, Rimington brought up two kids as a single-parent. If her 16-year-old self knew what was ahead of her, Rimington says, “she’d have worried that my life wasn’t safe”. Over time, however, she has come to realise that “everything I’ve been involved in has not been about peace –  it’s been about protecting against threats, but that hasn’t made me a more fearful person. Quite the opposite.” For all her exposure to some of the darker forces that exist, Rimington hasn’t allowed her work to dent her outlook on life.

Reflect: When work or life is challenging, what can you do to develop resilience and maintain a positive outlook?

MiMi Aung – Project Manager at NASA

While Elon Musk and SpaceX grab most of the headlines relating to Mars, engineer MiMi Aung works behind the scenes. She leads a team designing helicopters to fly over the red planet – after NASA touches down. Her fascination with space started as a child in Myanmar – gazing up at the stars and wondering if we’re alone. “The less you have, the more you think about those things,” she says.

Her desire to learn more inspired Aung to travel alone to the US to study. She considers herself lucky because her mother gave her better advice than her future self ever could. Doing homework, she kept asking her mum for the answers to a tough maths question. After repeated pleas, she replied, “Never, never ask me for a shortcut.” Fitting advice for the jet propulsion expert tasked with making aircraft fly in Mars’ thin atmosphere. [2]

Reflect: What's the best advice someone else has given you? What did you do with it, and what difference has it made to you?

What advice would you give your younger self?

Quotes taken from The Big Issue Presents Letters to My Younger Self – 100 Inspiring People on the Moments That Shaped Their Lives (2019), editor Jane Graham.
[1] Richard Feloni, ‘GM CEO Mary Barra reveals what she wishes she'd known in her 20s’ (2015). Available at: https://www.businessinsider.com/gm-ceo-mary-barras-advice-to-younger-self-2015-3?r=US&IR=T (accessed 26 February 2020).
[2] John Kennedy, ‘There are no shortcuts when you build a drone destined for Mars’ (2019). Available at: https://www.popsci.com/mars-2020-vision/ (accessed 26 February 2020).

About the author

Mind Tools

Mind Tools

Mind Tools was started in 1996 to offer practical online learning to people in the workplace.

By the time they joined Emerald in March 2019, they had grown into the one of the world’s most comprehensive learning resources, with millions of individual learners in 50 countries worldwide.

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