My father died of cancer when I was 8; my sister was only 4. His death meant that my mother, who was a homemaker, had to get a job to support us. Leaning in was her only choice.
She landed at Hewlett-Packard. In the early 1980s, HP was one of the very few companies that provided its employees with flexible work hours, great benefits and a fantastic summer picnic.
Growing up, I was embarrassed to have a working mother. She worked from 6am to 3pm, which meant she could never be the room mother, the troop leader or the field trip chaperone. It was my responsibility to wake myself up in the morning, pack my lunch, remember my homework and make sure my clothing matched. At the time I didn’t realize it, but my mother was teaching me self-reliance.
She also taught me to not to let fear stop me. After watching her soldier on, I saw no task as insurmountable—until I entered the workforce. When I arrived at the Washington Post as a 23 year-old news assistant, I was completely terrified and my confidence melted away. I wasn’t wearing the right clothes; I didn’t have the right background. I felt like an imposter and was sure someone would remove me from the building before the completion of my first day.
Suddenly, I found myself questioning whether I was actually capable of the kind of success I wanted. My fear of failure, of not being able to do what was asked of me – or worse, to take initiative and fail – was almost paralyzing. My mantra became “I can’t.” I constantly compared myself to my co-workers, who seemed so glamorous and put together. They talked about five-year plans; I was still figuring out how to pay next month’s rent.
Fortunately, I had a boss who refused to accept my fears as real. Very early on in my career, he told me that he was tired of me putting limits on myself. I realized almost immediately I was tired of it, too. In that moment, I decided if I wasn’t actually fearless, I would just have to fake it until my courage kicked in. And I did.
A few years later, I moved to the Wall Street Journal and found myself walking into an interview with Warren Buffett, plagued by the same insecurities I’d faced as a cub reporter. What would this man think of me? Would he take me seriously? Would he even see the interview through?
As it turns out, we hit it off – not in spite of who I was, but because of who I was. We talked about our mutual love of Dairy Queen (don’t judge) and a friendship was born. I learned that my points of differentiation are actually my strengths. I stopped hiding the things that made me different and started to embrace them. My differences became the fuel for my fearlessness.
I believe the fundamental challenge women face is this: Unless you come from a background where you are assured success, it can be easy to assume that it’s impossible for you to make an impact or become successful. I believe that’s not the case. Embracing your true self, learning to face your fears, and surrounding yourself with likeminded people is an unbiased path to success, available to all.