What does one need for success? Money, strings, privilege? The question surrounds me in abundance. I am working on an essay about why some ideas succeed and others fail; I am visiting a dozen of leadership and management executive courses where I sometimes look around and wonder where does it all lead; through some mysterious ways, I was discovered by the cultural attacheé of the American Embassy in Berlin and was invited ever since to their networking events for women in business, mostly successful ones, couple of wannabes. Business? I work for the regional agency for business and technology. That must have been it! Google simultaneous search.
I started to wonder: Am I successful? Some say so. I have a PhD, two gorgeous kids + a demanding partner family, a straight path or lead towards an executive MPA and a full time management job. I am below forty. On top of that, I am an immigrant in an (mostly) immigrant-unfriendly Germany (multi kulti looks good on paper, bad on the street, even worse at the University – all white German males, mostly from Bavaria). I am a war child who grew up in a war torn country. I still get the goosebumps from the sounds resembling an air strikes siren. Fifteen years ago, my brother and I stayed without both parents. My mom died and my father had better things to do than to take care of us. I packed my things and left for Germany. With my sole belongings: a thousand euros in my pockets, and something no dough can buy – loads of guts and brains. I had some really tough time, but today, I really feel good about all that. I am proud of my experiences, I believe in myself.
Still, I went to Egon Zehnder the other day. A guy invited me for a little chat about my career. But it turned into the most futile hour of my life:
“So, tell me something about you” he started off “shortly”.
“Well I graduated in Molecular Biology in Belgrade, then left for Berlin, finished my PhD, got two kids, changed my career and now I am working in tech transfer management and studying at the Hertie School of Governance”.
“I see” said he. “Any more kids?”.
“Yes, if it´s up to me. Let´s see what life holds in the pocket”.
“So, what does a network coordinator do?”.
That was my last position – descriptive.
“Something between conflict management and organisation. I invite people to the same table to discuss common projects, then I look for funding”.
“I see. Something like a clever secretary”.
“Yeah” said I, believing he was joking. Germans sometimes have that sarcastic humour we define in Serbia as British. I love it. Except, he was not joking.
“So why do you have a five month break in your CV”.
Because I worked in science and the project didn´t get prolonged, you idiot. Because it was a stupid temporary contract. Because the guy who hired me was an … white German from Bavaria…
“Well. I still work on the same project, but I am payed from another party” said I politely “the guy was not interesting in the issue anymore, so I changed”.
“I see” said he.
Did he? Well yes. Somewhere until the top of his nose. The furthest.
“Ok” I tried to cut the shit “where do you think I should go”.
“Why don´t you try the Helmholtz Headquarter, it is in Berlin”.
“Do you have any contacts there” asked I.
“Well, they are all on the internet”.
“Ok, thank you. But I don´t want to go to the academic administration, I want to develop real projects, scout for partners and funding. This is what I basically do now.”
“Let´s come from metaphysical to concrete – what does this mean, where do you want to go?”
“Why don´t you tell me what all is out there, isn´t that what you do?”.
“Well, for us you are too junior”.
Ok. We were eons away. And between these eons, there was the Berliner Mauer.
“I will have your CV in mind if an opportunity arises” said he.
“What a great idea” said I. We both knew it was a white lie.
“Alles Gute für Sie auch.”
I found myself in a small metal elevator, the kind I never get in, since I am über claustrophobic, but there was no other way out. Instead of screaming I imagined the cheesy Mr. “Zehnder” swooshing my CV in the bin. I saw.
Still, if you believe I am ok even if not Egon Zehnder approved, if you would like to have it all and wear it with the same grace as when you had nothing, if you would like to have been following the road from a small city in the backyard of todays Europe lying directly on the crusaders road, to the temples of power, here is what I have learned along the way and what I am going to leave to the ones who stay behind.
1. Things are not what they seem
This is the most important one! People wear many masks, and things appear often to be what they are not. Whatever one is pushing you to believe in, think for yourself, and see what he actually means and does. All that glitters is not gold.
“Things are not always what they seem; the first appearance deceives many; the intelligence of a few perceives what has been carefully hidden.”
2. Think outside the box
Employ stereo perspective and turn the thing upside down. Whatever one tells you that the solution is, there is always (at least) one other way. Life is not an axiom.
3. Cui bono?
The second most important one. Too many times I have witnessed self indulgence packed in a social context. Many will abuse you for their own benefit, then accuse you that you are crazy. Take care. The one who profits is not your friend. There must be no profit in friendship as there must be no ego in love. I learned to adore people who sacrifice for others. I learned to ignore people who do things for themselves. Life is not the survival of the fittest: the inner power comes from the coexistence.
The famous Lucius Cassius, whom the Roman people used to regard as a very honest and wise judge, was in the habit of asking, time and again, ‘To whose benefit?’
4. Mens sana in corpore sano
This is cheesy, but it is true. It is not your abdominals that will make you succeed, but it is your Muckis, as the German call their muscles dearly, that will help you hold the sky when falling at your head. Go on, do some sport! Blood will flush the brain and the mind will follow!
- You should pray for a healthy mind in a healthy body.
- Ask for a stout heart that has no fear of death,
- and deems length of days the least of Nature’s gifts
- that can endure any kind of toil,
- that knows neither wrath nor desire and thinks
- the woes and hard labors of Hercules better than
- the loves and banquets and downy cushions of Sardanapalus.
- What I commend to you, you can give to yourself;
- For assuredly, the only road to a life of peace is virtue.
- Roman poet Juvenal (10.356-64)
5. Never loose your sense of humour
A friend of mine was telling me about some embarrassment she just went through. I laughed awkwardly – it was really bad. “Are you laughing at me, or with me?” asked she. Bingo! That´s it! Surround yourself with people that laugh WITH you not AT you. Embarrassments will come and go, but a good sense of humour, and a respectful one is, like style, inherent and eternal.
6. You don´t need many people around you, but you need one friend who holds you not to fall
I learned this from the Watson´s The Double Helix, and it proved true so many times. You can get in fight with everyone, be strong about your opinions, use whatever it takes for self defence, but you need that one shoulder to lay your head on. Choose it wisely.
7. Dream big but achieve it in small steps
Success does not come over night. Dreams are not fulfilled in no time. Rome was not built in a day. Take your time. Be realistic. Devise achievable goals. The dots will connect at the end.
8. Quo vadis? Always know the next step.
Floating around is cool and there is definitely time to do that. But know when to pull that strings. Literally and metaphorically. Even if the road is curvy, the things are not what they seem and too many douchebags jumped on your train, the best way to pivot all that is to move in consequent steps. Sometimes infinitesimally small. Sometimes gigantic. But always one step at a time.
9. Be loyal, but cut relationships that pull you down
As all of us, I suffered bad relationships. Here is what I have learned out of it – there are some key ingredients that no relationship can survive without: honesty, time, mutual respect, differences that are keeping you together, not splitting you apart and a touch of magic. You must be better together, then when on your own. You need to be able to grow within a relationship. If the person is pulling you down, for any particular reason – cut it. Take your time to suffer over it, then move on. You have no time for bad relationships. Or, as my mother in law puts it:
Life is too short to drink bad wine.
10. Empathy is the key
Knowing the pain of the others is easier said than done. The more you approach it, the more fulfilment will come out of it. You are not alone. All is one. At the end, we are all made of stars.