Apparently desperate for a college application essay topic, my grandson Michael called to interview me. I settled into my comfy chair, wondering what this strapping Sugar Land, Texas Friday Night Lights football team co-captain would ask me.
I adore my grandchildren, but I’m not exactly the grandmother from central casting. More like Mona Simpson , another grandchild once opined. Michael had only seen me as a hard driving executive in New York City, where he liked to visit but emphatically wouldn’t want to live. He was in diapers in 1996 when I became president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. He’s observed he was the only one he knew whose grandmother appeared on television. (It didn’t sound like a compliment.)
But he’d done his homework. He knew I’d lived the first half of my life in small Texas towns, married my high school sweetheart at 15 and pregnant, and given birth to my third child, Michael’s father David, when I was all of 20.
And while Michael might not have known I’d started college intending to become a teacher (stereotypical female role), when David was four months old, then meandered from civil rights volunteer to Head Start teacher to women’s rights activist, he clearly “got” the unlikelihood that a girl who’d started out like characters in The Last Picture Show would end up as Glamour Woman of the Year , leader of the movement for women’s reproductive self-determination, and champion of insurance coverage for contraception in the highest halls of power.
“Grandmother,” he asked, “How did you do those things, given where you started?”
I blurted out, “I just said ‘Yes.’”
What I mean is, like many women, I wanted to please others. So if someone I admired asked me to do something, and I saw there was work to be done, like it or not, I would do it.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m incredibly blessed that there have always been people who saw more in me than I saw in myself, who supported, nudged, or cajoled me into taking on positions I would never have imagined putting myself forward for.
But I didn’t fully embrace my “power” to define my life from my own intention until I left Planned Parenthood in 2005.
While I feel infinitely fortunate to have melded my passion for social justice with a 30-year career there, upon leaving, I realized I had let the movement subsume me.
Young women often ask me for advice about their life and career choices, and I often tell them to make those decisions consciously and with intention. But since my conversation with Michael, I’ve thought deeply about the paradox that if I had applied the kind of intentionality to choosing a life that I tell young women to do, my trajectory would likely have been very different.
So, would I have changed anything?
Yes. And no.
Here I am today. In my 60s, I finally fulfilled five-year-old Gloria’s intention to be a writer, interrupted by cultural stereotypes that influenced me down other paths. Now, my latest book, No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power , enables me to advance women in a whole new way through my workshops and speeches.
Yet true to form, I’ve once again said “Yes.” I’m up-to-my-eyeballs busy co-founding a new nonprofit organization, Take the Lead (website to come—please stay tuned!), which aims to achieve women’s leadership parity across all sectors by 2025. I’ve again put writing aside to build what I see as the next great wave of the women’s movement.
But I think this time I’m much more intentional about it, more aware of what I bring to the table, and not shy about stating what I require to sustain my soul, what my boundaries are, and how I value my financial worth .
So my advice to my younger self is this: Be intentional. Declare a big, bold vision— your vision. Have a plan for your life and the courage to go for it. Don’t just follow your dreams, lead them. Take notes, and decide what you want your life to mean when you look back on it from age 30, 50, 80.
But be flexible enough to embrace fortuity. Delight in life’s ambiguity. The messiness and uncertainty of life are where the real juice is, where innovation and opportunity so often reside. If your deepest heart says “change direction,” do it, even if it wasn’t in your plan. And if your intentional path turns out not to rock your world after all , you can unchoose it and keep moving forward with authenticity, integrity, and joy.
Read more words of wisdom from inspiring women in our “ Lessons to My Younger Self ” series.
Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power, an inspirational leadership speaker, and the co-founder of Take The Lead, an organization that aims to achieve leadership gender parity by 2025. For more information on Take The Lead (website coming soon) or to find out how to get involved, please contact [email protected].More from this Author