Maria Eitel, founder of The NIKE Foundation and Girl Effect, provides advice for young people leaving school this summer – at a time of unprecedented disruption.
When you leave school, whether you’re heading to university or work, it’s always an unsettling transition. But for your generation, it’s especially tough. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, global economic uncertainty and a changing work landscape, you are emerging into an uncertain world. But whenever there is uncertainty and change, great new things are possible.
In the 1960s, the world and traditional institutions were challenged and there was deep tension and disruption. In the midst of that, young women found a whole new way to live, to have fun and be free. The right to vote was only granted to women in 1970 in some countries, yet women around the world found ways to participate and lead. Wherever and whenever you live, I can guarantee you one thing: you will experience life as unstable, confusing, challenging and scary.
The good news is that your life doesn’t have to be defined by any crisis, time period or reality that is thrust upon you. You can define your life yourself, by the attitude you adopt, the people and ideas you surround yourself with and the actions you take.
Here are tips to keep in mind as you head out into the world:
1. Get to know yourself
Take a minute to think about what thrills you and also what drives you crazy in the world. Is it traffic, rude people, poverty or racism? What do you feel needs fixing? Is there something that, in your dreams, you would like to be a part of? The new Mars landing and exploration, perhaps? A change of government? Helping a friend with something challenging?
Write down the things that make you angry or passionate. One of these might give you an indication of what really matters to you. Maybe, years from now, it could become a life focus. But for now, it is a great way to learn about yourself.
Somewhere in the mix of people, places, and things that irritate or annoy you; excite or disgust you; amuse you or make you happy, you’ll find a seed you can try to grow. By making a conscious effort to understand and appreciate who you are, you will set a solid foundation for what comes next.
And most importantly, understand that you are definitely much more interesting than you realise. We all are. Look for what makes you ‘weird’, strange, different from everyone else. Instead of that difference making you feel like you don’t fit in, see how that is a signpost to your natural home of knowing who you are and what makes you so special.
2. Listen carefully: it’s a superpower
If you think of the friends you connect with the most, you’ll realise their ability to listen tends to be the thing that sets them apart. In a world where nobody has any time, listening is a superpower.
You don’t always have to react or respond. Listen first, and then reply if you want to. There’s much more time than you think. And silence is ok. Raising your voice and speaking at the right moments, in order to express what you really want to say and care about, will feel all the more powerful because of the listening you have done.
3. Challenge yourself but NO self-criticism
There’s a fine line between challenging yourself and criticising yourself. Challenging yourself is about asking what you’ll do differently next time, not beating yourself up over mistakes you’ve made.
When things go badly, ask yourself: what went wrong, why did it go wrong, and how will I recover? The problem isn’t that something went wrong. The problem is if you burden yourself with it as a failure. Making mistakes is how we learn and grow and do great things.
I wouldn’t get anything important done if I focused on all the mistakes I make. I have made so many and continue to. It is entirely normal to make mistakes. Just try to not keep making the same ones! Embrace your mistakes and find the fun in learning how to play with new scenarios and identify how you’d handle something similar differently next time. Self-criticism is horrific. My therapist and I have a joke: When I self-criticise, he charges me a penny. Sometimes I can get in deep debt in just one conversation. Don’t criticise yourself – it gets you nowhere and could cost you a lot!
After my second year at university, I was feeling lost. I had taken a class in television production. We got to play each role: camera, lighting, news anchor, producer, writer. I loved it. I wanted to learn more and thought a summer internship was the next big step.
The problem was that my local TV station wasn’t offering internships. I decided to show up anyway. I told the receptionist I was there to meet the manager who had sent me the rejection letter when I first applied. After being told, again, that they didn’t have internships, I said I would wait in the lobby until they had something for me to do.
After several days of waiting, the manager eventually came out to see me. I told him I’d do whatever they needed – make coffee, run errands, do the photocopying. He said he was sorry they just didn’t have internships. I pulled out my book and said I’d wait until they had something for me to do. He shrugged and went back to work. I read my book in the lobby for three days and then it happened. The manager asked me to go and get coffees, then another producer asked me to make some photocopies, then do some research. I had my chance to show them what I could do.
I appreciate processes are more complicated, remote and structured these days, but find a way to be creative, resourceful and committed, and think your way around problems.
Persistence starts with a first step. That first step will take you to the next step. You may hit a wall but that doesn't matter – just take the next step. You will most likely find that the early steps are the hardest because you don't have momentum yet, but persistence is what you need to get to the point where momentum kicks in. Hang in there until you get momentum. That’s when great things happen.
5. Get the basics right
The world is exciting, so you’ll need to pace yourself! Eating and sleeping properly is critical. And when you’re stressed, take deep breaths, go for a run, or do what you need to relax. Find your tribe and lean on members for friendship or help.
As you start out, don’t be too concerned with detailed plans for your life – including your career. In my experience, plans inevitably fall apart. Focus on what you enjoy and what your strengths are, plot a course between those points and take a first small step. Don’t compare yourself to others or be jealous of others. Nobody feels better when they do that. If you feel insecure, or doubt your path, or your parents or friends or siblings are questioning you, respond with deep curiosity, an open mind and a commitment to walking your own unique pathway to health, direction and happiness.
Maria Eitel set up the Nike Foundation, which supports the work of Girl Effect in helping adolescent girls to break the cycle of poverty and realise their potential. She previously worked in media affairs at the White House, where she was a special assistant to President George H.W. Bush, and has held leadership positions at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Microsoft.