Choose Happiness: Marilyn Tam on Life and Work

Fall 2016 Todd Lecturer.

This past September, Norwich University welcomed author and entrepreneur Marilyn Tam to the Hill as part of the Todd Lecture Series. Roughly 750 turned out to Plumley Armory for her presentation, “The Happiness Choice: 5 Decisions That Take You from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.” And between the live stream and the podcast, more than 150 have tuned in to the lecture online. Tam, who was born in Hong Kong and moved to the U.S. as a teenager alone and with barely any money, rose to become CEO of Aveda Corp., president of Reebok Apparel and Retail Group, and vice president of Nike Inc. A best-selling author, she is one of the most sought-after speakers on leadership in the world.

During her visit, she imparted some pearls of wisdom for life and work. Here are some highlights.

(Photo by Mark Collier.)

(Photo by Mark Collier.)

On Purpose

You’re not just an accident happening. You’re actually consciously doing something to make a life. The reason for life, really, is to give back. If you’re feeling you’re serving, it makes all the difference.

On Making a Difference

I was 11 years old and my classmate, Rebecca, would not give me her address. I learned that it was because she was ashamed of where she lived. Her family lived in a single room, and they shared a bathroom and a kitchen with two other families. She was ashamed that they didn’t have very much money. At the end of the month, they didn’t have enough food to eat. Rebecca and her brother and sister had two stools and they had to take turns sitting on those stools to do homework off the bunk beds, because that’s all the furniture they had. I was filled with outrage. I could not understand why two parents, working full time, couldn’t afford to feed their family and give them the basics of life. That’s when I decided that I was going to make a difference in the world.

On Work

You have to find a reason for why you want to have a company. And it can’t be just to make a lot of money. People have come to me and said, I have this idea, and it’s going to make a jillion dollars. I say, It probably won’t make you a jillion dollars because you’re not really passionate about it for what it is. You’re just trying to make money. If you’re really passionate about the idea, even when you don’t make money, you’re going to try harder. That’s the difference.

On Her Work-Life Principle: “Make Big Mistakes”

I tell this to all the teams that I work with, and they say to me, Are you sure you want us to make big mistakes? That sounds expensive. I think you might fire me then. I say, No, because if you’re not making big mistakes, that means you’re doing the same thing over and over again and you’re definitely not making any progress. If you’re making small mistakes, that means you’re careless. But if you make a big mistake, what that means is that you’re taking a risk.

On Change

If people are too afraid to change because if they rock the boat they’re out the door, we’d still be making horse carriages.

On Hitting the Glass Ceiling

I didn’t get my first job because I was a woman. It was with a bank. I had all the qualifications, and the skills and the knowledge and everything else and I gave a good interview. I didn’t get the call back, so I eventually called them and got hold of the person I interviewed with. This was a long time ago, you know, so gender issues were not part of the discussion as they are now.

He actually leveled with me and he said, You have the qualifications, but honestly, women are only tellers. I took a deep breath.

On Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling

Be better than everybody else. Even if [a man is] slightly not as good as you, he’ll still get the job. The only way you’re going to get the job or get promoted is by being that much better.

On Balance in Leadership

If you look at Fortune 500 leaders, 4.5 percent of CEOs are women. It’s better because it used to be 3.7 percent, but you know, we’re talking about a handful. At least it’s being talked about now. We as a people, we as an organization, we as country, we as the world lose when 50 percent of the people are marginalized. When they’re not able to offer their input, their perspective, their talents to their full abilities.

On Engagement

Get people engaged in the goals and the mission of the organization. You have to make sure that your company, your organization, your country, is standing for something that people can get behind. When you have people really excited and committed to the mission, they work and perform at a level that they would never do otherwise.

Contributors: Jasmine C. Bowman ’18, Jacque E. Day, Amber L. Reichart ’19

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