Major life transitions such as leaving the protected environment of school or starting a new career can be daunting.
It is scary to face a wall of choices, knowing that no one is going to tell us whether or not we are making the right decision. There is no clearly delineated path or recipe for success. Even figuring out how and where to start can be a challenge.
That is, until now. As executive director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, Tina Seelig guides her students as they make the difficult transition from the academic environment to the professional world, providing tangible skills and insights that will last a lifetime.
Seelig is an entrepreneur, neuroscientist, and popular teacher, and in What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20 she shares with us what she offers her students—provocative stories, inspiring advice, and a big dose of humility and humor. These pages are filled with fascinating examples, from the classroom to the boardroom, of individuals defying expectations, challenging assumptions, and achieving amazing success.
Seelig throws out the old rules and provides a new model for reaching our highest potential. We discover how to have a healthy disregard for the impossible, how to recover from failure, and how most problems are remarkable opportunities in disguise. What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20 is a much-needed book for everyone looking to make their mark on the world.
Before retiring, my father was a successful corporate executive. He rose up through the ranks, from young engineer to manager to executive, and had senior roles at several large multinational companies. Growing up, I got used to learning that he had received promotions, from vice president to executive vice president to senior executive vice president, and so on. It happened like clockwork every two years or so. I was always impressed by my father’s accomplishments and viewed him as a wonderful role model.
That said, I couldn’t have been more surprised when my father got annoyed with me after I showed him one of my new business cards. They read “Tina L. Seelig, President.” I had started my own venture and printed my own business cards. My father looked at the cards and then at me and said, “You can’t just call yourself president.” In his experience, you had to wait for someone else to promote you to a leadership role. You couldn’t appoint yourself. He was so steeped in a world where others promote you to positions with greater responsibility that the thought of my anointing myself with that title perturbed him.
I have come across this mentality time and again. For example, twenty years ago when I told a friend I was going to write a book, she asked, “What makes you think you can write a book?” She couldn’t imagine taking on such a project without the blessing of someone in a position of greater authority. I, on the other hand, felt confident I could do it. The task was certainly ambitious, but why not try? At the time there weren’t any popular books on the chemistry of cooking. I wanted to read such a book, and since there wasn’t one available, I decided to write one myself. I wasn’t an expert on the topic, but as a scientist, figured I could learn the material along the way. I put together a detailed proposal, wrote some sample chapters, shopped it around, and landed a contract.
After my first book came out, I was surprised by how little promotion my publisher did, and decided to start a business to help authors get more exposure for their work and to help readers learn about books that might interest them. Again, quite a number of people asked me what made me think I could start a company. This was clearly a stretch for me, but I assumed I could figure it out. I started BookBrowser in 1991, several years before the Web was born. The idea was to create a kiosk-based system for bookstore customers that would “Match Books with Buys.” I built the prototype on my Mac computer using HyperCard, a program that allowed users to put links from one “card” to another “card,” just like HotLinks on the Web today. The software allowed users to follow links for a particular author, title, or genre. I also met with local bookstore managers, who agreed to put the kiosks in their stores, and I talked with dozens of publishers who were enthusiastic about including their books in the system. Satisfied that the idea was sound, I hired a team of programmers to implement the product. Nobody told me I could or should do this…I just did it.
Over time, I’ve became increasingly aware that the world is divided into people who wait for others to give them permission to do the things they want to do and people who grant themselves permission. Some look inside themselves for motivation and others wait to be pushed forward by outside forces. From my experience, there’s a lot to be said for seizing opportunities instead of waiting for someone to hand them to you. There are always white spaces ready to be filled and golden nuggets of opportunities lying on the ground waiting for someone to pick them up. Sometimes it means looking beyond your own desk, outside your building, across the street, or around the corner. But the nuggets are there for the taking by anyone willing to gather them up.
This is exactly what Paul Yock discovered. Paul, as previously introduced, is the director of Stanford’s BioDesign Program. His home base is the medical school, which is literally across the street from the engineering school. About ten years ago, Paul realized that Stanford was missing a huge opportunity by not finding ways for the medical school students and faculty to work with the engineering school students and faculty to invent new medical technologies. The medical folks, including doctors, students, and research scientists, needed engineers to design new products and processes to improve patient care; and the engineers across the street were looking for compelling problems to solve using their skills. Over the course of months, the various stakeholders met to discuss ways that they could work together. It was a complicated process since the two groups work so differently and have quite different vocabularies. Eventually, they hammered out a plan and the BioDesign Program was born. During the same time period, other colleagues in different medical and technical disciplines developed similar partnerships and the groups were gathered under one large umbrella, known as BioX. The idea was so big that it took several years to implement and resulted in productive cross-disciplinary collaboration and a stunning new building that now stands between the medical school and the engineering school. This story illustrates the fact that sometimes opportunities can be found right across the street—you just have to look up from your desk to see them. Nobody told Paul to do this. But he saw the need and filled it.