I promised this post forever ago. It took forever to write. Thanks for your patience:
I sat on a relationships panel for WEEN a few months back. For those of you who don't know, WEEN, or Women in Entertainment Empowerment Network, is a fabulous national organization that seeks to empower young women (and was started by four of my friends). Anyway, I walked into the "green" room to ready myself for the production and was pleasantly surprised to find a roomfull of successful, personable, and friendly Black women, many of whom I knew well, some in passing, others were familiar faces from my TV screens.
All together, their resumes read like a who's who in medicine, finance, education, media and more. I noticed that as a group they had some key characteristics in common and for those of you who write in (or just sit around and wonder), to ask, "Belle, how do I get to be like them?" I'd like to share some totally subjective tips about how to get there.
It's not about not being happy with what you have, it's more about earning an "A+" out of life instead of just an "A." You reach a goal, you set new ones (note that plural.) Onward and upward is the prevailing motto.
*Surround Yourself With Ambitious People (if for no other reason than it's incredibly motivating)
You never want to be the one who's doing the nothing in a group full of people doing the something. I have a friend, Jen, who has a side hustle and a main hustle. Everytime I speak to her, she tells me about something major she just did or is thinking about doing. And the next time I see her, she's done the thing she was planning last time and is already planning something new. Ya'll know how much I do, but after I talk to her, I feel like there's always more I could be doing. I feel inspired to go home and work on something— a book, a blog, a media campaign, something!— just so I stay on point. Call it healthy competition and good motivation.
*Let Fabulous Women Light Your Path
I am blessed to work in an an entire office of beautiful, inspiring, positive Black women who show me the way personally and professionally every single day. If you aren't blessed to have that too— and it's a rare office in most places, I know— follow some fabulous women on Twitter: Abiola Abrams, Bevy Smith, Lauren Lake, June Ambrose, Marvet Britto, dream hampton, Raquel Cepeda (all women I'm met in passing, one I used to work for) and heed their lessons. The one thing they all have in common is they're always doing something that takes them a step closer to making their current dream another reality. Follow them: @bevysmith @laurenlake @raquelcepeda @juneambrose @marvetbritto @dreamhampton @abiolatv
Having ideas are only half the battle, and that's only if you actually act on them. Otherwise they are daydreams. And no one ever got far in life daydreaming all day. A fabulous life doesn't fall in your lap, you have to create it. Have a vision, make baby steps for it, and when you've worked hard to open your own doors, you'll find that other people start to open them for you and beckon you through. That doesn't happen overnight, likely not till you're dang near 30 or on the "better" side of 30. Ivanka Trump, who's become a real estate success in her own right, gave great quote to a magazine when she said, 'I've found the harder I work, the luckier I get." Luck = preparation and opportunity.
*Have More Than One "Hustle"
You should have a job and a side hustle that you're at least passionate about and maybe it makes you some extra money. As Lester Freamon once told McNulty on The Wire, "the job will not save you." You should have something to rely on, emotionally, if not financially. For me, it's Belle, and all the opportunities it leads to.
*Stop Complaining About Problems & Solve Them
Everybody needs to vent, but if all you ever do is vent and complain, then you're whining. And worse, you'll never get anywhere. You want change, then make change. You need more money? Make something and sell it. Spend less. Buy something and sell it at a higher price. It's really that simple. I have a friend that got laid-off recently. She was the chick that came to parties and top-cheffed all the drinks to make 'em tasty. You know what she's doing now? Selling homemade sangria for the holiday season. Think of a void and fill it.
*Know A Little About A Lot of Things.
My godmother used to tell me this when I was a kid. It was how she defined an intelligent woman. You will always be able to connect with someone if you have a lot of information stored away. How do you get that?...
Do stuff outside of your house. Visit musuems, parks. Watch intelligent TV and a little "trash" too. Talk to different people. Get online and read the news. Pick up a magazine, a book, or even the newspaper. Read stuff you wouldn't normally read about. Get on The Root, CNN, MSNBC, Gawker, The Huffington Post. Your conversational knowledege base can never be to vast.
For most people this sounds intimidating. It doesn't have to be. Say hi, introduce yourself, and pay a compliment or ask someone a question about themselves. The conversation should go from there with most civilized adults. Being shy is no excuse. Shy people don't get very far. Oh, and before you go to any networking event, Google the people that are hosting it or who will be on the panel. They're usually the VIPs of the room and are most likely to be able to help you get where you want to be. If you can walk up to them and have something to say that shows you did your homework, you get an automatic advantage.
You have two ears and one mouth. Use accordingly. You will learn more (and have more to talk about) if you do less talking. You'll also seem more mature, since age can play against you professionally when you're young. There was a woman at the WEEN event who I gave the benefit of the doubt of being on point just because she was in the green room and everyone else was so fab. Then she got to talking about cursing out people at work, how she hadn't changed clothes from the night before, how she was hungover, how much she pays for her weaves, how often she gets one and how she doesn't care about maintaining it (um, we could tell that.) The more she talked, the more my respect for her dropped. One by one, the women she was casually chatting with (ie networking), drifted away with startled looks on their faces. You think she could ever call one of them up for a job lead or a coffee to discuss anything of importance after that? Tell your business to your girls or your mama and leave it at that.
*Look Neat and Dressed (Even if It's Over) For Every Occasion
Whatever your style is, it should flatter you, and make you stand out, if for nothing but its crispness. It's for more than vanity. It gives people an easy entry point to talk to you with a compliment paid to whatever you're wearing. I can't tell you how many great people I've met who've said to me or I've said to them, "I like your shoes/hair." Then we get to talking and it's, "Sorry, what's your name?" and "You have a card?"
There's a difference between bragging and doing some personal PR. There's nothing wrong with talking about yourself, your ambitions, what you're looking for, etc. People won't know what you do/want if you won't tell them. I met a young woman at the WEEN event who'd somehow landed a meeting with the president of The Magazine, not an easy feat. She wants to work there. She wanted to know how to make that happen. I told her to tell the President that she wanted a job, what she wanted to do exactly, list how she could be a benefit and what made her perfect for the position. She was baffled. "You want me to ask?!" Um... yes. How will she know otherwise? (I've found many 20-somethings hate being direct. Break that habit today.)
*Get Up Early
This one was a devil for me to adopt as I'm an owl-type. But in the last two months I've been doing it, I've accomplished way more than I thought possible and in the down time I've thought up a million new ventures that will run me ragged until next July. I've even started to get up early on weekends. (Admittedly, this was after reading Chinese proverbs about rice paddy work in Outliers.)
Oprah says it all the time, but giving back really does feel good. For you to get anywhere in life, someone had to look out for you. It's only fair that you do the same. It also gives great perspective on how far you've come, going from the person listening to the speaker, to the person speaking; from the person asking, "How do I?" to the woman explaining how.
You can't be fabulous and have debt collection calling your house or mobile. And you don't have to be a baller. To be fab, you just have to be responsible with your money. Save up for what you want, even if it's just a little (I encourage 10 percent.) Stack some away for a rainy day or a big splurge on something nice for yourself. I don't believe in credit cards unless it's an emergency.
*Keep Your Hair in a Do
Hair can make or break an outfit. Even if you're in Chanel from head to toe, and your face has been beat by Sam Fine you will look raggedy if your hair looks crazy. That said, if you're a corporate girl (or an aspiring one) get rid of "bad weaves" and acrylics. Bad weaves: anything without a part, unblended with your texture, of random colors, including all blonde, or having too much hair, all scream, "I'm an underling" and you'll get stuck being one.
*Take Your Tatas off the Glass
Few women can be taken seriously in any professional setting (no matter how casual or artistic) with it all hanging out, even by other women. I know one woman who gets away with it and she's by far the exception to the rule. Don't try what she does at home unless your work requires you to p-pop like Bey Bey for a living.
*Have A Plan
You want to move to a new city? You should have a plan that outlines how you'll get there and how you'll survive. It's not as simple as finding a new job, and just moving. You need a place to live/sleep, something to sleep on, etc. That takes money. You want to start your own business? Same thing. Write the Great American novel? Same thing. If you don't know what steps to take, buy a book, Google or ask someone who's done it already. Actually, do all three.
*Don't Do Dumb Ish
Half-naked pics on your Facebook page. Saying inappropriate ish on Twitter. Taking pictures of you and your friends doing illegal ish. Recording sexual romps. Big tattoos in glaring places. So many people do it these days that it's cliche. But it still carrys a stigma and worse, your employer— now and future— have access to it. It's fine to live wildly. Keep the memories. Don't go around documenting it.
I get a lot of emails, asking, "Belle, how do I...?" I'm always more apt to respond to women who outline what they're doing and what they've tried as opposed to those who aren't doing much, but waiting for an opportunity to fall from the sky or for someone else to fix what ails them. If you get on the right path, someone will help you. Guaranteed. You may have to ask, or someone may come along and take your hand or point you in the right direction, but they are guaranteed not to if you won't at least try first.
*Be a Big Fish
I can't remember who told me this concept. And I hate that because I'd like to pay homage; its one of the wisest things I've ever been told. If you want to play in the big ocean (say New York), you must first prove you can swim in the small pond (ie anywhere else). You don't start at the top. You just don't. You've got to be a good student to be a good intern, to be a good assistant, to move up from there. You have to master each step. The faster you do, the faster you rise. Some people seem like they get to the top without working— they don't; they just did the hard work behind the scenes or really early in life.
I swear by this concept, which I learned from Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success. The idea is that you must put in 10,000 hours of work in your chosen field to be among the greats at anything (it's 8,000 just to be recognized as a leader.) It's that simple, and there's no way around it and it usually takes ten years. Even the so-called naturally talented have to hone the gift for the same amount of time. Accept it as truth and start logging your time. Oh, and everyone you admire who is successful and more than a one-hit wonder or 15 minutes of fame getter is a nerd. I mean everyone.
They're like those plants that shoot fireballs from Super Mario Bros. Completely annoying and they pop up at worst possible moment to throw you off task— so we're clear that is the sole purpose of a hater. There's nothing you can do to please them, so don't try. Find solace in the idea that they find you worth hating on and move on. But be careful... All people with criticsm aren't hating. Some folks will break you down because you need to be. You can tell the difference by noticing who avoids name calling and personal attacks and who offers valid reasons for the critique and offers solutions or alternatives.
*Don't Be Influenced By Other People's Agendas
I read recently about a woman from a self-described "po-dunk" town who wants to move to New York. She's about 21/22 and shared this with her sister. The sister quicky ran down a list of why she would never make it. Um... people come here from all around the world all the time. Some of them don't even speak English, have few literacy skills, and are here illegally. But an English speaking, legal citizen with a college degree can't be one of literally millions?
Family can be tricky. If they're halfway decent, they want you to be happy, but they also don't want you too far away. They want you safe, warm, well fed, and protected at all times. They also don't want you to "out-grow" them. This doesn't make them bad people, but what they want for you is the exact opposite of what you get when you go on an adventure, like say, leaving a small town for a city. Sometimes you just have to go against the grain and live your life. (So we're clear MamaBelle and PapaBelle did their damndest to keep me from moving to New York. I'd tell the story someday when I no longer get angry thinking about it) Worst case scenario, you move, you can't pull it together to stay, so you go back home. Either you try again, try something else or you stop trying. Trying and failing is a part of life, but it's only a failure when you give up or worse, don't even try.