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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

3 Career Lessons Anyone Can Learn From Lupita Nyong'o

Recent Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o knows a thing or two about career success—and, more importantly, the work it takes to get there. At the 2014 Massachusetts Conference for Women, Nyong’o shared some of the lessons she’s learned while pursuing what she used to think of as “not a viable career path.”

Even if you weren’t one of the 10,000 lucky conference attendees who got to hear her speak, here are three key takeaways you can apply to your own success story.

1. Prepare Yourself for Failure

At the conference, Nyong’o placed great emphasis on dreaming big, so much so that she believes flat-out failure should be within the realm of possibility. She reasoned, “Without the possibility of being bad at something, you will never be extraordinary.” Pushing yourself to that limit “allows you to embrace vulnerability and surprise yourself… It doesn’t ever get comfortable. But it does get familiar.”

2. Build a Strong Support Team

Few people claim to achieve success on their own, and Lupita Nyong’o is no exception. Even at the conference, Nyong’o made a point to call out to her mother, her “number one cheerleader,” who attended in support of her daughter. She highlighted the importance of having “stretch bearers,” or people who will get you through the hard times, and how she’s leaned on her own stretch bearers as she pursued her career in an industry not known for being particularly hospitable to newcomers.

3. Write Down Your Goals

Perhaps the most tangible piece of career advice offered by Nyong’o was this: Write down your dreams. And what counts as a dream? Nyong’o clarifies, “The dreaming I would like to speak to is that glimpse of the thing that would make you feel most alive.” That’s the good stuff—write it down. While Nyong’o only offers anecdotal evidence, it’s still pretty compelling. Within 10 days of writing about her dreams of making impactful films and visiting New Orleans in her diary, she landed her award-winning role in 12 Years a Slave—which happened to involve five weeks of filming in NOLA.

Whether you want to set out to make films, found a startup, or write a book, your first step is having the courage to admit what you want out loud—and it’s not always easy. As Nyong’o explains, “I wept just as I am now, because it was so hard to admit that I wanted to be something so improbable." But with that out of the way, a little help from others, and the magic of pen and paper, she was soon well on her way to becoming the ambassador for dreaming big that she is today.

Photo of Lupita Nyong’o courtesy of Jaguar PS / Shutterstock.