“I am learning all the time. The tombstone will be my diploma.”
– Eartha Kitt, 1927-2008
Having just enjoyed another birthday, I am still amazed at how much I still have to learn – despite my many beneficial experiences and expertise – that I feel I should have learned at a much younger age. Most women over 40 feel this way, I know.
Because of my experiences, and continued passion for adding to my expertise, I also have a passion for mentoring, teaching and counseling others – especially college students – so they develop a zeal for a lifetime of learning. Of course, none of us learns the same way, nor do we want to learn for the same reasons. For example, I learned about leadership by becoming extremely open to learning from all sorts of people in some very uncomfortable situations. I now look at those learning situations as essential to my professional and spiritual development, much like new physical exercises are essential to my health as I get older.
As an educator and consultant I can confirm that the three very important lessons about life, business and professional responsibility I learned at a very young age from my Italian parents. They are pertinent to anyone who’s interested in the mission of “always be learning.”
#1: Be respectful to everyone, even when you think others aren’t watching, because it’s the right thing to do and because there’s always someone watching. Women (and men!) over 40 in presumed leadership positions often make the gravest mistakes in exhibiting rude behavior towards individuals they think are “beneath” them. Not only is this unprofessional and unbecoming in a leader, it can be deleterious to your career in general. The very individuals to whom you might have been insensitive could in turn complain behind your back to your most important client, or to your boss, or to a prospective employer. Even if no one turns your story into a version of Nanny Diaries or Devil Wears Prada, what mature executive can afford bad references!
#2: Be wary of making derisive comments – ever – about religion, sexual orientation, and ethnic background. What might seem innocuous, or so-called conventional wisdom, or “playing along to get along” in a group not only hurts others, but could hurt you most when you least expect it, for instance, at what should be the zenith of your career.
#3: Earn, invest in and have easy access to your own “Forget You!” assets. I was nine when my very wise father advised me that romantic partners, business associates, bosses, friends and others on whom I might depend or trust for financial support were, in fact, not to be depended on or trusted as my primary means of financial support. Even after nearly 40 years of fulfilling marriage to a devoted and exceedingly decent man, I haven’t forgotten my father’s advice.
Since I’ve spent half my career marketing corporate brands and services, I don’t purport to be a novice let alone an apologist for anyone’s insensitive behavior or personal troubles. Even when it concerns notable women over 40 who I respect, but especially when it concerns celebrities who earn millions of dollars – as brands!
Be that as it may, few normal folk have to manage their lives under the constant scrutiny of the public eye. As a marketer, I know from experience that the hardest brands to manage and market are those associated with celebrity spokespersons. When the person is the brand, it’s nearly impossible to predict what might happen to the brand’s equity when the brand exhibits evidence of being a living, learning human being.
As countless women over 40 have realized, our lives are full of lesson plans. Whether they’re proactive plans, to optimize our strengths and minimize our weaknesses in good times, or they’re reactive, to mitigate crises and help us take advantage of opportunities, is governed by our willingness to always be learning.
For my own coda, I hope I’m as lucky as Eartha Kitt – learning all the time, until the very last diploma.