#1 Silicon Valley and a screwdriver – the foundations of my career

#1 Letter to myself: Silicon Valley and a screwdriver – the foundations of my career

Dear myself,

During the past year, I have had a wonderful time exploring the world, its biggest challenges and opportunities. I soon discovered that I also had an urge to explore myself and reflect on who I am, looking at what made me succeed and what held me back. I am writing 10 letters to myself about the extract of my reflections in order to keep it present to myself. This will be part of my future and of living my full potential. Perhaps others can find inspiration in it as well – time will tell.

All my life I have regularly reflected on my life, whether I was satisfied with the life I lived or not. And if not, I made adjustments or bigger changes. That approach has served me well and resulted in a very happy life. Looking back over the past years I am so happy to see a very exciting, developing, meaningful and successful career. I am truly grateful for the 10 years of engineering, research and project management followed by 15 years as manager within pharma and engineering consulting businesses leading as many as 800 engineers responsible for designing pharmaceutical production plants or food and beverage plants all over the world.

Now reflecting, what has made me the kind of leader that I have grown into? There are things so fundamental to me that I need to lead from that place. I realized that some of the pivotal moments were in my early teenage years. Probably, much had developed even earlier, but this is when I remember moments and experiences that have stayed with me through all the years and impacted my way of living and leading.

The purpose of my life

My uncle Erik and my aunt Edith emigrated to America in the 1950’s, when he had graduated as a textile engineer. He then transitioned into electronics and worked in the “Silicon Valley” of Los Angeles. In the summer when I was 15 I visited my family in California. One day, I went with Erik to his work at a computer hardware company. He took me into the clean room of the factory and showed me the huge discs and computers – “what fantastic possibilities for the future these give” he said. He elaborated at length on the how one could now store a whole library on one disc (at that time the size was the size of an LP record), how the computer power could calculate faster than ever and that it could result in whole new ways of doing things in the future. I felt excitement, thrill and joy. I could imagine a wealth of opportunities for the world in that moment. This moment became a tipping point moment of my life. I decided I too wanted to be an engineer.

Only later in life did I understand the true significance of this moment – I found the purpose of my life there and then. I love doing things, that can improve the world and create a better life for people. Many people. Looking back, all my jobs has lived up to my purpose – but of course it is no coincidence.

The lesson learned is to look for what excites you. If you truly listen to that voice in your head, when you make choices in your life, you are on a path to happiness and fulfillment. There will be a lot of other voices in your head, giving you all kinds of excuses or roadblocks to follow your inner desire. Those you need to remove (more about that in a later letter). This year I have realized how much you can learn from listening to all of one self – not only to the voice in your head but also to the subtle feelings in your whole body. It can be the feeling of lightness or heaviness, or you stop breathing for a moment. Your body is the loudspeaker of your subconscious mind. Pay attention to what emotions you have when you go through life, meet people and make life decisions. What feels easy and right? What brings you excitement and joy? or even the feeling of playful or fun? This gives you hints on what supports the purpose of your life.

I guess at the age of 15 I did that unconsciously – however later in life it became more difficult. I had ambitions and wanted to achieve what I had set my mind on. When I studied my Ph.D. I had my first real trouble with life. The topic was one that could improve the world, and later did improve the approval process of medicine in FDA and elsewhere. However, I suffered. The lack of fast progress on the topic and the loneliness in the process were very stressful to me and made me feel quite depressed. I used my willpower to get through the last quite awful year of my Ph.D. and it took me to the limit. When I handed in the thesis I remember I could hardly feel myself, nor feel joy at anything and felt it difficult to have conversations with other people. It took me more than half a year to recover. It really taught me the lesson to listen to myself. It takes practice, I have progressed a lot and even now I know I can become even better at it.

The perseverance I used back then is more often a help than a problem to me. Where did I learn that? And what else from my early years was fundamental?

I built a boat when I was 12 years old

I am an only child and grew up with my mother, as my father left for another woman when I was still a toddler. My mother worked as a dental technician and had left school after 7th grade, dyslectic but smart and practical. Nothing can stop my mother when she sets her mind on something. She is the kind of person who just keeps investigating until she understands how things work. When I was 12 years old she decided to build a motorboat.

We went to several boat exhibitions and ended up buying a fiberglass shell for a 24 ft motorboat, with nothing in it. “The rest of the boat we are going to make ourselves” my mother said, and then she bought a 20 hp diesel motor and 10 large sheets of mahogany plywood.
We visited more exhibitions, took measures and designed patterns for the pieces of wood that would finally make up the interior. It was a large project to embark on. For 6 months, we went into the garage as soon as my mother finished working. We sawed, varnished, made fiberglass work, assembled the pieces and built the boat.

We suffered setbacks now and then. The biggest setback was when we were one third through the woodwork and discovered that the quality of the wood was too poor. We had to gut out everything and start all over again. It did not stop us.
Towards the end, it came in handy that I am a very creative person and had gotten a sewing machine for my 7th birthday. Hence, at 12 I had enough routine from sewing clothes for my dolls and for myself to also sew the curtains and the mattresses and even the captains seat for the boat.
When I think back it was a massive achievement to build that boat. On the other hand, at the time it was just a matter of doing one thing and then the next, adding a little every day, and all the bits and pieces developed into to a beautifully boat, which we sailed in for nearly 40 years.

Building this boat with my mother taught me three things that have shaped me and been extremely useful throughout my life and in my leadership.

Anything is possible

Building a boat when you have no boat building experience or training could seem like a totally impossible thing to do. Yet it was possible! I believe that experiencing this first hand at an early age, gave me the life perspective that anything is possible, and of course it can be achieved. I seldom experience mental limitations like an inner voice telling me “it cannot be done” or “you cannot do that”, but when it occasionally happens, I remind myself about what I believe in – anything is possible, there is always a way.

I realize that all through my life I have been conscious about what I really wanted to do and achieve, and I have been very successful in achieving it. What it takes for me is that the goal is something I really desire from deep within. Once I am clear about what I want, I visualize that it already is achieved, then I focus on how to achieve it. Without struggle, but with determination and perseverance I take one step at the time until I finally get there. It helps to think that everything man-made in this world is made by starting with the first step and then taking a step at the time. You do not have to know exactly how to finish your project when you set out. That you will discover along the way by being curious and learning what you need to learn when you need to learn it. The most important thing is that you start.

This mental focusing has worked well for me on longer term goals like becoming a top-level leader in a value-based company making a difference to the world or on short term goals like finding a room to rent in my favorite neighborhood the same day as I decided to move out from my boyfriend. I knew where I would really want to live. I walked up and down the streets and left a note in every mailbox saying I was leaving my boyfriend and needed a room for rent right away. When I turned a corner, I saw a man who was about to put up a note on the community note board saying “Room for rent”. I gave him my note, he smiled, tore up his and I moved in the next day.

Proactivity works

The boat building experience also taught me to be proactive. We had to think a lot of things through before we started to build everything in the right order. In this process, I got a lasting lesson of proactivity. I often had the role of handing the tools to my mother when she was assembling things in a hard to reach corner (there is virtually no room inside a cupboard or a locker in a boat). I remember her asking for a hammer and me handing her one, where after she immediately yelled very angrily at me that this was not what she needed, she needed the screwdriver. “But you asked for a hammer, mom!?” I said. She replied that she expected me to be present and think ahead and had I done that I would have realized that the next thing she needed was a screwdriver. We have laughed a lot of that little intermezzo as it was totally ridiculous. Nevertheless, be it due to the way she said it or due to the clear insight it gave me, being proactive became a fundamental to me.

Proactivity can take many forms. Thinking ahead has always served me well. It allows time for making better choices or optimizing actions or saving time and money. For my personal development, I have used 5 year plans, something I learned in Novo Nordisk. It gave me the background to choose between options during my career. Interestingly, the plans have always come true ahead of schedule. In business strategies, I have used scenario thinking, playing out what the future could be like, imagining different scenarios and their impact on the business. The great thing about doing it proactively, is that you have more time to adjust to your important insights. It has also served me well when aiming for a goal – be it private or business – on the 3-6 months’ horizon – then my favorite tool is the graphical game plan (See below).

Go for quality – take the longer perspective

The last important learning from the boat building experience was opting for quality. As we had looked at lots of boats, both new and old boats of the same make as ours, my mom realized that some of the older boats built at the factory had worn down varnish already after 10 years. It did not look good so she decided that we should go for higher quality and varnish the wood 10 times from the beginning. I hated it. It took ages. Not only should you varnish the wood but in between every finish there was a tedious process of sanding with wet ultrafine flint paper. My mother aimed at close to perfection. “You are going to sail in this boat for the next 30 years, you do not want to look at unfinished work or ugly shortcuts every time you go sailing” she said – and she was right. The boat ended up with high quality mahogany woodwork with high gloss varnish and looked even better than what you could buy from the shipyard. We sailed the boat for 38 years, and it has been a great pleasure to appreciate the high quality and clever design solutions.

This experience left me with the appreciation of quality and beauty. It also made me never want to settle with the mediocre. I will rather go that extra mile. Furthermore, it induced in me the knowledge that long-term wins can be worth so much more than the shortcuts. This I have used in business as well. Especially leading through difficult times during the global financial crisis it was fundamental to me that while trimming the organization to match the situation it needed to be done with the longer term in mind.

I am so grateful that I learned these lessons early in life. Over the years, I have come across books that significantly contributed to my further development of these early life lessons.

Inspirational books form my library:

Stifinderen (The Pathfinder) about the art of making change. Clever insights from the sports and business coach Lasse Zäll (written by Kim Hundevadt and available in Danish only). In this book, you will find the principles I learned from attending The Pathfinder Leadership Course developed by Lasse Zäll. I learned the 110% goal, the proactive planning and a whole lot more I will remember in a later letter. It literately was a life changing experience.
The Graphic Game Plan is a great visualization tool and a methodology for proactive planning
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey – lovely approach and handy action tools that can help you pursue your dreams even when you are nearly too occupied by daily life.
It all starts with WHY by Simon Sinek – a great guide to business on that your business prosper if you have a clear company purpose – why you do what you do. Relevant for the personal purpose as well.

In conclusion, I believe in our own impact on the quality of life. Just remember that not everything can be planned for, so listen deeply to yourself to decide on the next step. I love the citation from a speech Steve Jobs gave at Stanford in 2005: “life is like dots of experience, you can’t connect the dots forward only backward. As much as we try to plan our lives ahead in advance, there is something that’s completely unpredictable about life. What seems like a bitter anguish and defeat in the moment can turn out to sow the seeds of your unimaginable success years from now. Do not be too attached to how you think your life is supposed to work out and instead trust that all the dots will be connected in the future. That is all part of the plan.”

This will be all for now, I promise to write soon.
Until then enjoy life!