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You Are Who You Are Because of Your Choices

Recognized thought leader Jeanne Beliveau-Dunn outlines her philosophy of life and success. Everyone has experiences in life that challenge them—she calls these events contrast. She explains how, if you ground yourself in an operating model of love and build mental discipline and emotional intelligence, you will be able to use these challenges to learn and grow.

This chapter is from the book
  • Accept responsibility for your life. Know that it is you who will get you where you want to go, no one else.
  • Les Brown

I am very thankful for the success I have achieved in my career and life. I get to work with amazing people and do things that I never thought possible. Looking at my life and career, one might think that I grew up with all of the privileges and all the best advisors. The assumption is that I am someone from a nice town with good schools, my family had money and connections, and I thrived in the life I was supposed to live. None of that is the case.

A Challenged Beginning

I grew up a daughter of immigrant families who had tough lives, and I had personal and family challenges. We lived in Lawrence, Massachusetts, a town of immigrants from all parts of the world, trying to find a better life living in a city with a depressed economy and a high crime rate.

That being said, I would not trade anything in my past for something better because it made me the person I am today, and that is someone who I am quite comfortable with.

One recent day in Boston, I was shopping down Newbury Street and ran into a younger version of myself at Max Mara, my favorite clothing store. In the store, a woman in her early twenties greeted me and started to lead me to a number of irresistible pieces that were just my style. She engaged me as a person and told me her story about coming to Boston for school and earning her way through college. She is from Colombia and had a very warm, engaging style that immediately sucked me in. Meeting her made me remember my past and reflect on my present. I feel for her to have to work full time while going through school, but I know from experience that this will work in spades for her in the end.

My story is similar to hers. My parents were not college educated but both of them were very smart, and although they had their problems, we all loved each other. When times were good, they were really good. When times were bad, they were really bad. We lived a life of extremes—a life of contrast.

My father was a striking man—tall and good-looking with intense eyes. He spent much of his early adult life serving in the Air Force during wartime. His battlefield experiences created many demons for him, which came out through alcoholism.

He was self-educated and a tinkerer. All of our electronics at home were constantly in a state of disarray because he liked to pull apart and reassemble our TVs, stereos, and even our car. Nothing in our house worked. He was fascinated with technology and had many different jobs—none that he held too long because he would get bored or clearly was not living the dream in the workplace. When he finally had a great job as a member of the technical support staff for the first Apollo mission to the moon (he was essentially a technical writer), he felt disenfranchised by the lack of control over his work and once again drank himself into unemployment.

I loved my father. He was witty, clever, a real adventurer, and full of life when he was doing what he loved. Unfortunately, and like many people I have met, he spent most of his life doing things he did not like.

My mom played the role of parent and disciplinarian to my father and me, and we would challenge her quite a bit. She did not stand a chance with the two of us kids until something happened: He died. My father was my best friend, my co-adventurer in the back woods of Canada and Maine, and I lost him when I was 12 years old—just when I was starting to understand who I was.

Looking back, I think it was my voracious appetite for learning through experience and how I enjoyed discovering the unknown or finding a new, untouched path—qualities I got from my dad—that helped me get through this very difficult time.

Building Resilience and Strength

After my dad died, taking on adult responsibilities was not a choice; it was survival. Our family had both financial and emotional problems. A deep love between my mother and father and my mother’s discipline, strength, persistence, and level head in a crisis had kept the family together through our troubles. But when my father died at 38, my brother, mother, and I were left to pull ourselves back from a slide into poverty. After my father died, my mother developed several health problems that challenged keeping the family together. My brother and I had to live with other family members and friends while my mother recovered.

During this time, my priority—I was the oldest—was to get my family through this crisis and out of survival mode as soon as possible. I knew there was more to life than survival, but I also realized that dreaming without purpose and doing without a strategy would result in a goalless life without direction or purpose. Having lived through my father’s choices and his less-than-purposeful life, I was not interested in making that same mistake. I went to work at age 12, learned how to support myself and take care of my family, and kept working all the way through college. Although they were difficult and scary, these experiences accelerated my development. As a young child, I was very shy, being an only child for the first 10 years of my life. When my dad died, I realized being shy wasn’t going to work for me. I loved fashion and clothes, and did not want to do without; I was determined to have a great life. So I did anything legal and creative to earn money and build my confidence. I even went to hairdressing school so I could earn money while going to college. I liked doing creative things and working with other people to help them feel good about themselves. This became a way for me to also feel good about myself—particularly at a time when I operated my life without a safety net.

Sometimes when life became overwhelming, I would have to talk myself into a path forward. I would tell myself that things would work out for us as a family if we simply stayed positive and had each other. I used to watch a lot of old movies, the kind with happy endings, which gave me an escape from the tough times. Even though I did not know what lay in front of me, I had deep faith that somehow this would all work out. My mom, friends’ moms, aunts, and teachers would tell me that many great people came from nothing and from great adversity, and that where I came from did not have to define me. Of course, there were others who would tell me the opposite, but I did what I could to block them out.

If I wanted to have anything—a good home, better opportunities, and a better life—I knew I had to get to work and earn money. So, at 12 I got a job at a local retailer, even though I had to lie about my age (that caught up with me eventually). The funny thing is that I knew I was shy and fearful of speaking with people I did not know. But if there was a product to sell or common ground, like music or fashion, it made opening the conversation a bit easier.

The clothing store I worked at was a pleasant place to work. It helped me get things I needed, and it surrounded me with people who gave me great experiences and helped me get out of my shell. This first job gave me some early insight into fashion, and because I also liked music—lots of musicians hung around there—it felt like a job with big benefits. The staff and management were nice and protective of me because of my situation. And they felt bad when social security came knocking at their door—I was underage, oops!—and they had to let me go.

The good news was I was on my journey to be less shy and more outgoing—a major boost to my future job potential. I had to fake being outgoing at first, but the more I talked to strangers the easier it got and the better I was in connecting with them. Because I was young, I was always trying to improve myself. I dreamed and imagined a lot about what I could be and what I wanted to be, and I paid attention to elements of what I liked in other people. I tried emulating their behavior in hopes that I would get more comfortable with myself; I thought mimicking their confidence would get me through my fear of rejection or lack of confidence. Those years were like a roller coaster. They had amazing highs and lows. I was proud of what I was doing for my age and how I was breaking through my fears, but also lived in the reality of the big climb ahead to get to college and into a great life.

Even though I felt I was on my own, I came to realize that I could turn to family, friends, and teachers for advice and help. These people would give me other perspectives and support. A friend’s mom, Deloris Waterman, used to pump me up with her view of my potential and by describing what life could hold for me every time I went over to their house. I went over there as often as I could. She was an educated woman and the wife of a lawyer from a prominent family. Although they had fallen on hard times, she had been places and had known famous people, and she had great faith in me. Her faith in me helped build my confidence. My mother was also a great source of inspiration as she began to pull herself out of her health problems and make better choices that helped get us back on our feet. She loved both my brother and me deeply and would always make us feel valued and important. That is a gift that I choose to repay and pay forward with others whenever I can because I know how powerful it was for me to receive it.

Empower Yourself

These early hardships taught me to embrace the power of me, because in my heart I knew that I had to take charge of my future. It is through these experiences that I developed my philosophy about work and life. I developed a strong determination to have a big and joyful life and not accept less than what I wanted from the future. It was clear to me then, as it is now, that there is more to life than what my parents experienced. I wanted everything, a great life and a rewarding, worthwhile career, and I knew that working to get what I wanted did not have to mean sacrificing who I was. Ultimately, these experiences gave me the knowledge, skills, and practice I needed to develop a very successful career.

We all know people whose early lives were difficult but whose choices on how to deal with it were what set them up for their lives ahead. We have all heard the stories of many famous and successful people who came from nothing and were able to build great lives for themselves. A privileged background is not necessarily an advantage or a criterion for achieving success. Think about Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, David Geffen, Barack Obama, Patti Smith, Sally Jessy Raphael, Jim Carrey, and Jeannette Walls, among many others. All of these people have two things in common: they are at the top of their game in their professions today, and they had periods in their lives characterized by economic or personal tragedy.

Success isn’t the result of random good luck or confidence fairies. In my case, no privileged background or parents’ connections helped me along the way. Although hard work is involved with success, there is more to it than that. Even though most folks are knowledgeable about their area of expertise and have a few ideas about what drives personal success, they still struggle to get the outcome they want out of their careers. What I discovered from my experiences and from observing others is that the ability to succeed has a formula. There are some general principles involved in achieving success, and you can apply these principles to your life and your career.

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