Many of us grow up thinking that big success in business and life can only be achieved by insiders.
That thought passed through my mind more than once as an “outsider” myself in Puerto Rico, Lebanon, and suburban Chicago.
Many of us have bought into the myth that big success is reserved for those on the inside, which is to say, people who are born into it or who easily fall into it. That’s because we have been told—either directly or indirectly by employers, bosses, or investors or our own friends and families, by the media or even whispers on the street—that success is for those with the “right” gender or skin color or religion or sexual orientation or socioeconomic status or abilities or connections.
And if that’s not us, it’s easy to believe success is not meant for us.
But this is just not true. Life-changing success can be achieved by people like us.
All my life, I have felt like an outsider—someone who didn’t quite belong. Maybe it’s because mi madre came from Puerto Rico and spoke with a heavy accent. Or perhaps it was because my father immigrated from the former Yugoslavia and kept that “Old World” mentality alive in our immigrant household.
Then there’s the fact that my first memories are of living in Puerto Rico, followed by living in a war zone in Beirut, Lebanon. And my next memories are of being bullied for not fitting in at my Catholic grade school in suburban Chicago. I was white-passing but not “white enough”…American but not “American enough.” And I was left to mostly fend for myself because my parents were consumed with their work and their own fiery relationship.
I was married at 23, pregnant at 27, then became a divorced single mother working through the chaos of raising three children while battling serious health issues. Despite being on the outside and frequently fighting the chaos that comes from challenging life circumstances, I made it to the top as an entrepreneur. With my talented team, I built a business called iParenting—a “Best of the Web” digital media company reaching millions of parents—and sold it to the Walt Disney Company. I was a Disney executive for two years, then built a second business, 30Seconds, that I love and that is still thriving.
I know so many things now that I didn’t understand when I started out in my career, and one of the most important is that our societal narrative about success is wrong.
I have met many women who, like me, have had lives filled with friction, or who are different in some way, yet who are wildly successful. We are living proof that success doesn’t come just to insiders who have a smooth path through life. Success is something we make for ourselves—and if I can do it, anyone can. I’m here to share how, and to ease any doubts about if it’s possible. Because it’s absolutely possible, even for outsiders.
The secret is that we can achieve big success precisely because we are outsiders. We have been made strong by our experiences.
We all experience chaos, challenges, friction—whatever you want to call it—in our lives. However we label the chaos, it happens to all of us in some way or another. Although it shows up in unique and personal ways (racism, ageism, sexism, abuse, illness, disease, disability, divorce, disconnection, inequality, injustice, and more), everyone deals with chaos. But women who are “othered” tend to experience it even more intensely.
I have a code word for the chaos, challenges, and friction. I call it fire.
Why fire? Because throughout the years, there have been many times when the chaos of my life was so bad it felt as though I had been thrown into a fire. Flame after flame, the chaos was unrelenting in its desire to singe and sear. But by battling each blaze, I became stronger and wiser and less afraid. By rising up to face that fire, and not allowing the flames to engulf me, I took on their strength and engulfed them instead.
Through this process of overcoming, I learned that fire has an energy that can be destructive or constructive. It’s a powerful force that can burn us or forge us. I tried to avoid getting burned, but eventually I simply stopped trying to escape the fire. Instead, I figured out how to become the fire.
What does this mean—become the fire?
It means not being in the fire, not getting burned, but instead using the fire’s energy to ignite our motivation and drive, passion and grit.
It means not waiting for a lucky break, but instead making our own luck by preparing for and creating opportunities.
It means not focusing on what we don’t have or can’t do, but instead leveraging what we do have and what we can do.
It means that our mindset matters, our choices matter, what we focus on matters, and what we do with our time matters.
It means that instead of letting the fire burn us, we harness the flames within and use them as opportunities to grow stronger, wiser, braver, and more resilient.
It’s about seeing the fire as fuel to propel our success.
Success in our career and our life is not dependent on how smooth a path we’ve had. It’s all about mastering our own transformation—from being thrown into the fire to becoming the fire—every single day.
By channeling the fire into our passion and purpose, we can literally change our lives.