Tiny Changes, Radical Results: Success in Uncertain Times – with Esther Wojcicki

33 minutes
Esther Wojcicki

Hear from a legendary educator—and the mother of three CEOs—in this month’s episode of Women Amplified.

Some would say that Esther Wojcicki is the rainmaker of success – she knows how to raise, educate and manage others so they reach their highest potential even in the most challenging and turbulent of times. This episode offers essential and simple lessons to help you navigate success in any climate. Learn how to make small changes to your approach to achieve radical results that can change the world—even when the world is changing around you.

 

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“The most important thing is to try, not to give up, and not punish yourself, and not to tell yourself how terrible it is that you’re stuck in this situation. Because if you do that, then you won’t be able to think your way out of it. You have to be able to figure out there are solutions.”Esther Wojcicki


 

This Month’s Guest:

ESTHER WOJCICKI is a leading American educator, journalist, and mother. A leader in blended learning and the integration of technology into education, she is the founder of the Media Arts programs at Palo Alto High School. Wojcicki serves as vice chair of Creative Commons, and was instrumental in the launch of the Google Teacher Academy. She lives in California. Her most recent book is HOW TO RAISE SUCCESSFUL PEOPLE: Simple Lessons for Radical Results. @estherwojcicki

Our Host:

CELESTE HEADLEE is a communication and human nature expert, and an award-winning journalist. She is a professional speaker, and also the author of Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving, Heard Mentality and We Need to Talk. In her twenty-year career in public radio, she has been the executive producer of On Second Thought at Georgia Public Radio, and anchored programs including Tell Me MoreTalk of the NationAll Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. She also served as cohost of the national morning news show The Takeaway from PRI and WNYC, and anchored presidential coverage in 2012 for PBS World Channel. Headlee’s TEDx talk sharing ten ways to have a better conversation has over twenty million total views to date. @celesteheadlee


 

Additional Resources:

 

View Transcript

Celeste Headlee:
So, your name is often … in fact, almost always paired with the word success. Right?

Esther Wojcicki:
Yes.

Celeste Headlee:
I mean, they call you the rainmaker of success. You’re the mother of three incredibly successful daughters. All of them are CEOs. You’ve been a very successful teacher in that you have educated people who’ve gone on to success. But while I use this word ‘success,’ I’m wondering if we all use that word the same way, and what you think are the varying definitions of that word.

Esther Wojcicki:
So, there are a lot of definitions of that word. And the way that I see success is that you, the individual, feel empowered to follow your dreams. That is success. And you have the self confidence, you have the support of your community, and the support of your family to follow whatever dreams you have. Those dreams don’t necessarily have to be CEO of this, or in charge of lots of people, or making lots of money. It means that you can really be whatever you want to be in life.

Esther Wojcicki:
I never in a million years expected my daughters to do what they are doing today. I mean, Susan majored in French, and English history, [inaudible 00:00:01:50], and I thought she would be a history professor, or a literature professor, or a teacher like me.

Esther Wojcicki:
Janet majored in African American studies, and she lived in a house at Stanford called Ujumaa. It was the house for all the African American students. Then she went to Africa, and all she wanted to do was worry about what African issues confronted South Africa. That’s where she was. It turns out she’s still involved in that, because she’s very concerned about the problems that South Africa, and actually the whole African continent is having. But I never expected that at all.

Esther Wojcicki:
And Anne, her main thing in life … she was an ice skater. That’s what she loved doing. She was part of an ice skating team, and she took a lot of ice skating lessons, and she actually became semi-professional. Who would have ever guessed? [crosstalk 00:02:58]

Celeste Headlee:
It’s interesting you say that though, because I can imagine people getting a sort of inflexible definition of success. Say, for example, that she had defined success as going to the Olympics. That would mean that regardless of what she did, if she didn’t attain the standard she’d set up for herself, she could think of herself as a failure. Does the definition of success have to be flexible?

Esther Wojcicki:
I think the definition of success has to be somewhat flexible, because a lot of people don’t succeed in what their first goal is. The first thing I tell people is, you need to forgive yourself. You’re the first person that you have to take care of … yourself. And nobody succeeds the first time.

Esther Wojcicki:
In my classes, for example, the idea is to be able to write an article that is publishable, and that’s success. You have succeeded in writing something that we want to publish. It looks pretty good. But to get to that point you have to fail a lot, so they have to revise, and revise, and revise until they get there.

Esther Wojcicki:
I think success doesn’t come the first time you try it. Success comes because you pursue it, and because you believe in yourself, and because you have achieved that dream. Or you have forgiven yourself for not achieving that dream, and you’ve taken another path which is also something that you value. I think it’s really important for people to be in position where they want to be. That they have had the resources and the psychological support to get there.

Celeste Headlee:
I have to imagine that for some people, the age in which we’re in has really challenged their idea of being successful. Whether that’s because they’ve lost their job, maybe their job has changed, maybe they’re working from home, and they find it challenging, maybe they’ve had financial setbacks. I wonder how people might be able to cope with just the anxiety and uncertainty that people are experiencing right now, and sort of still keep a positive framework in mind. And still keep that goal ahead of them.

Esther Wojcicki:
One of the things I think is really important … and I’ve always done it my whole life, and the same thing with my daughters … is always look for the silver lining. See whether or not you can’t take every crisis as an opportunity to do something new and different. That is one of the things that I’m doing right now, and that I think we all are forced into doing. But some people get so depressed and bogged down by it that then they can’t function.

Esther Wojcicki:
I grew up in a very difficult situation. I grew up in poverty. My parents were born in Russia. They had this idea of childbearing as the child is meant to be seen, not heard. Of course, life was a little different than it was for my children growing up, and I wanted to change the parenting techniques so that my children would grow up in a different environment. But I always tried to look for the positive in everything, because otherwise I would have been totally depressed.

Esther Wojcicki:
I mean, one of the things that happened to me when I was about 15 years old is that my parents announced that they were not going to support me at all going to college, because their goal for me was to get married. I was supposed to get married at the age of 18, and never looked back. And I said I didn’t want to get married, and so they disowned me financially. I took that as an opportunity to as I’m going to college, and I was determined to earn money so I could go to college, and then also determined to somehow get financial help from the college.

Esther Wojcicki:
I was lucky that that happened. I went to UC Berkeley, and fortunately I got scholarships to be able to go. But also then, that forced me into working. I started working at the age of 16. Well, actually even earlier. I worked earlier, but I wasn’t earning very much money. It started my career in journalism, because I first started working at the age of 14 for the local newspaper. I was kind of the girl Friday there, and then I ended up being a journalist. So, you see, it could have worked out that I never would have had to do that, and then I never would have ended up in journalism.

Celeste Headlee:
You’re probably hearing handling noise from my end, but I’ve ran record on a different microphone than I … Yeah. Right. So, you should be fine. Sure, no problem. Esther, in light with what you’ve said … however long … No, we’re hearing this in August. Let me phrase this a different way.

Celeste Headlee:
In light of what you said about seeing the silver lining, how does that relate to being able to find humor in a situation? We found this quote from an interview you did in 2019 in which you said, “Everything in life, there’s a lot of things that don’t go right. And you can either cry about them, or you can laugh about them, or perhaps you can do a combination of both. I do tend to be pretty silly most of the time.”

Celeste Headlee:
I wanted to relay to you because of this an exchange that I heard, which is that one of my neighbors made a joke about how badly they were eating during quarantine, and the other neighbors said, “This isn’t a funny time.” And I wonder what your response might to be to something like that, the tug of the tug of war between a feeling that we have to take crises seriously, and the idea that you sort of need to laugh or you would cry.

Esther Wojcicki:
I’ll tell you, it’s you need to laugh or you would cry. I think that’s really so important in these times. There are all kinds of crazy things that are going on. I just posted something recently on Facebook with pictures of people who were wearing different kinds of masks, and it was hilarious. I mean, there’s no other way to describe it. I mean, some guy had actually used part of his wet wife’s bra as a mask. I mean, you have to laugh. In order to get through life, you have to laugh.

Esther Wojcicki:
I can give you a crazy example that happened. I used to take 52 kids to New York City for a week once a year. And 52 kids … you can imagine what it’s like walking down the streets in New York City with 52 kids. But I took them on the subway also. That’s how we traveled. And one day not knowing the difference between uptown and downtown, I ended up going uptown with all these kids. It’s like, “Oh my God. We have to go downtown, not uptown.” You can imagine what that looked like. It was chaos.

Esther Wojcicki:
But I never really got upset about it. I was like, “Okay, you guys. You’re ending up in the wrong place, but you’re going to have to come back.” It would have made the best sitcom, I can tell you. We all got back together, but it was quite the incredible crisis. Then I said to them, “Well, you had an opportunity to explore parts of New York we weren’t going to explore. That gave you a new perspective,” so it’s great.

Esther Wojcicki:
I think you have to do that, because the world is so difficult, and so many challenges for so many people. I think it’s important to spend the least part of the time thinking about what opportunity this challenge is giving you, and there are lots of opportunities.

Celeste Headlee:
Well, then let’s talk about some of those opportunities. Specifically what kind of leadership qualities, and especially … I guess extra success opportunities that could come out of crisis. Right? I mean, there’s a different side of us that handles with crisis than the one that deals with everyday life. How do we make sure that handling a crisis … how do we make sure that we come through a crisis more prepared for success than we were when we’re going in?

Esther Wojcicki:
Because you would just want to take a look at some of the skills you’re developing in this crisis situation. For example, we’re all living together, and we’re not going out of the house, so you have to get along with the people that are your family, or your friends, or whoever your significant other is. You have an opportunity to practice a lot of skills. Interpersonal skills that you might not have had that opportunity to do before. There’s also opportunities to practice cooking, and practice sharing, being kind to people. We didn’t have time to do a lot of that before.

Esther Wojcicki:
I mean, I spent most of my time traveling. I was on airplanes all the time. Now I’m home and I’m spending a lot of time with my husband. We have a lot more interaction than we had before, and I can tell you he’s really happy to have three meals a day prepared by his wife. I don’t remember the last time I ever did that. I can’t say these are gourmet meals, because we don’t have a lot of gourmet components to put in the meals. But it’s just fun for us to be together. We’re trying to look at the positive. And one of the things we learned early on is not to watch television too much, because then we feel depressed. As I said to my students, when you’re writing news, no one really writes news about good things that happened. Sometimes they do, but most of the time it’s the bad stuff and it’s depressing.

Celeste Headlee:
I think that would probably be stay true for things like refreshing your Twitter feed all day long or watching Facebook all day long. You could also get depressed looking at all the headlines there too, right?

Esther Wojcicki:
Oh yeah. That’s depressing. But what you can do is … what can you do to make other people’s lives better? So, just for example, the other day I went up and down the street. I have a lot of neighbors that are elderly, and I ended up getting a lot of extra organic tomatoes. I delivered a little care package to them, to each one of them, and it was incredible. One of them sent me a note and said how that had made her day. Just a little care package of tomatoes. Who would have ever thought that that would make a difference?

Esther Wojcicki:
I’ve ended up doing more of that kind of thing now. Now, I’m actually going to be delivering eggs this week. Sounds kind of funny, but I have extra eggs, and there’s a shortage of eggs in the store. But I think you can do little things like that every day to try to make your day better and other people’s day better. I don’t know how long it’s going to take for us to overcome this virus thing, but I think we’re going to be dealing with this for a while.

Celeste Headlee:
Your book in 2019 was called ‘How to Raise Successful People.’ And it feels extremely relevant right now, especially because many parents are really in the thick of it, incredibly stressed out and anxious. They’ve become not just parents, but they’re also working from home which is stressful. And they’re often either handling the homeschooling, or overseeing the homeschooling, and cooking every meal at home for the most part. What advice would you give to a working parent, or any parent at this time, in terms of … maybe the definition of successful parenting has to change?

Esther Wojcicki:
The definition of successful parenting should change a little bit. I think the most important thing that parents can do today is to make their child feel like they are part of the team. It’s a team effort. We’re all in this together, and we all have our role, and we’re all working together to make our lives better.

Esther Wojcicki:
One of the courses UC Berkeley instituted last year was called ‘adulting.’ Adulting means skills that people need to be adults. The reason they implemented that course was because they were getting hundreds, maybe thousands of kids that were entering the system, and didn’t have the basic skills for how to be an adult. That being basically you know how to do their own laundry, how to cook, how to clean, how to do basic things that people do. And the question was: why is this happening now? It was because of the helicopter parenting syndrome where the parents were doing pretty much everything for the kids.

Esther Wojcicki:
Our crisis we’re in now is an opportunity for us to use our kids … their free time, use that to teach them the adulting skills that were then being taught last year at UC Berkeley and the whole UC system. David Brooks wrote a column just a couple of days ago in which he said, “This is the end of the era of coddling. We’re no longer coddling our kids, because we can’t coddle them the same way that we called them before. We all need them to be part of the team. We need to think of this as an opportunity to change the way we parent that is more effective for our kids rather than less effective.”

Celeste Headlee:
It’s interesting though. I had a kind of a mixed reaction to David Brooks column, and I want to put this to you as well. Because there is, I think, a mistaken idea that millennials and Gen Z are have it easy, when in fact they’ve had to with a lot of major crises, and wars, and very deeply suppressed wages, and fewer job opportunities. I feel like sometimes the definition of success that worked for earlier generations maybe doesn’t hold true for a 20 something.

Esther Wojcicki:
Well, I think Gen Z has really had a tough time, and I unfortunately don’t see them having much improvement. But I think what he’s referring to is this adulting stuff, because a lot of these kids came from the helicopter parenting homes, and didn’t learn the skills necessary to take good care of themselves in multiple ways. But this COVID crisis that we had or having is going to impact Generation Z even more than it has already. It’s a really tough time, and I think that we all need to work together to make their lives better, to see what we can do to improve the life of Generation Z, and giving them more opportunities.

Esther Wojcicki:
That’s what I’m trying to do, and that’s what I try to do in my classes is to teach kids how to think. How to think no matter what situation you are in. The number one way to be able to think clearly is not to get terribly upset. Because if you get really upset and you get really mad at yourself, then you can’t think. You have to just think your way out of this. It’s a very challenging time for this generation and for all of us.

Celeste Headlee:
So, you advocate a process that’s … The acronym is TRICK. T-R-I-C-K. It stands for trust, respect, independence, collaboration, and kindness. And I wonder how these things lead to success. When you look at them, it looks like they lead to someone being a good person with integrity. Is that the same thing in your mind as success?

Esther Wojcicki:
I think it’s a component of success. You want to be a good person. You want to have integrity. But the reason I use that acronym … ‘trust’ is the first part, trust and respect. And the first person you see need to trust, and believe in, and respect is yourself. While you’re doing that, you also need to define the barriers out there, because there are a lot of them. You want to make sure that the people that you surround yourself with are people that also trust you, and support you, and give you an opportunity to achieve whatever it is.

Esther Wojcicki:
We have to sort of back up on our rules with success or our idea of success, because maybe we had long-term goals for success … Maybe success is through this week without having problems. Maybe it’s getting enough food without having a lot of problems. Maybe it’s making sure that your child has a good sense of self this particular week. I mean, it’s really sad for me to see all the people that are having a very hard time managing their lives, and people that are standing in line at food banks, and not being able to not having a salary, and losing a lot of their support system.

Esther Wojcicki:
I think we have to redefine success as being able to cope effectively with your family in this environment that we’re living in today. And if I just think about like what would success be in school as a teacher, for me, I think really it is empowering my students to cope with the issues that face them every day. They’re going to be a lot of them. It’s not going to disappear tomorrow.

Celeste Headlee:
So, our listeners often like to come away with tangible, actionable things that they can do. Which is totally understandable, right? And I’m wondering … let’s say one of your friends came to you and said, “I’m struggling. A lot of things that I had planned on have sort of fallen through. I have to completely reevaluate what’s going on.” Can you tell me three things you might tell them to do that they could get accomplished today? Like, what’s the first thing you’d say? “Okay, try this.”

Esther Wojcicki:
Well, I think it would depend on what their challenges are. But I think the first thing that I would do is listen. Listen to them. I think just being somebody there for them to have somebody that listens, and then help them work through some of their challenges with my support. I think that’s probably the first thing, because many people are not good listeners. When they listen, they’re actually listening for their opportunity to tell you what their problems are. I think that’s one thing.

Esther Wojcicki:
The second thing is I would try to figure out what is it that I have in my life, in my social network that can somehow help them achieve whatever it is that they’re having problems with. Is there some way that I can connect them? There’s some way that I could provide resources for them that could help them achieve whatever it is they need to achieve?

Esther Wojcicki:
I just can envision all these problems that almost seem insurmountable. But if you have support, if you have people that believe in you, if you have somebody to talk to, it’s much easier for you to navigate than it is if you feel like you’re totally alone, no one supports you, and you don’t know what you’re going to do.

Celeste Headlee:
So, what I’m hearing from you coming from the other side is, first of all … A, they can listen to other people. And by listening to other people, it might make them feel more empathic, more compassionate, but also learn to articulate what’s going on well. And the second thing would be to find the right mentor for the right challenge. To think about who in your circle might be able to help with specific problems, and go seek out that particular person. Is that accurate?

Esther Wojcicki:
That’s right. That’s what I meant by: can I connect them with somebody that can mentor them, or help them seek out the right solution to their challenge.

Esther Wojcicki:
So, one of the groups that I’m working with is a company that’s helping retrain people. My goal for them would be, “Can we have that retraining be available to people at a low cost, so that then they can get jobs in areas that they never thought they could work in?” This would be something that I think would be helpful to people, because sometimes you lose your job and you aren’t aware of the fact that you might have skills in other areas, and you might be able to get jobs in other areas. You just have to think outside the box. You have to think about all the different opportunities that you might never have thought about before, because you never thought you had any of those skills.

Celeste Headlee:
And that sounds like … I mean, what I’m hearing there is try stuff even if you think you’re not great at it. Right? Just try things out.

Esther Wojcicki:
That’s right. Try things out that you think you might not be great at. Because honestly, nobody’s great at anything to start. You can be just as great as the guy next to you, but you have to try. The most important thing is to try, not to give up, and not punish yourself, and not to tell yourself how terrible it is that you’re stuck in this situation. Because if you do that, then you won’t be able to think your way out of it. You have to be able to figure out there are solutions.

Esther Wojcicki:
I mean, I just remember … I grew up in the east side of Los Angeles, and I remember I lived in this place that honestly looked like a dump. I did my best at that point. It sounded kind of crazy, and the neighborhood thought I was crazy. I managed to get a lawn mower, and I would mow the lawn on this property. It was like a three unit building. And people were like, “My God, that kid is a little crazy.” But I wanted a place that didn’t look like a dump, and so I went out and I did it.

Esther Wojcicki:
I mean, there’s a lot of things that you can do to make your life better. And I think in today’s world, it’s going to be educating your kids. I’m going to be writing a blog post on a regular basis called [wojway.com 00:26:56], which I’m going to offer suggestions for how your kids can pretty much self educate if you follow some of these principles that I’m going to put out there, and be able to access free content online. Or if it’s not free, maybe it costs $100 for an entire year, or something like that. Because I think one of the things parents worry about the most are their kids, and how they’re going to cope. If I can help them do that, that might make a difference, and then help- [crosstalk 00:27:33]

Celeste Headlee:
Sorry. I want to interrupt you for just one second if I can to sort of summarize if possible what I just heard from you. And it sounds like you’re advising people to, when things are insurmountable, find the one thing you can do. I mean, in your case it was mowing lawns. But when their problems truly are huge and overwhelming, maybe they can just find the one or two small things they can accomplish. Is that accurate?

Esther Wojcicki:
That’s right. One or two small things. That’s success. You have to build. There’s lots of little things you can do to make your life better. Growing up in poverty, I can tell you there were lots of little things I did to make my life better, and the mowing the lawn was just one thing. I know what it’s like to live smashed in small areas. There were four people living in two rooms when I was growing up. It’s tough, I know. But you can make it happen, and your attitude is one of the keys.

Celeste Headlee:
Esther, thank you so very much. This is all really good advice.

Esther Wojcicki:
Well, I’m happy to do that. I hope that I’ll be able to give people ideas on the wojway.com. And I’d like to tell them that we’ll all get through this. We really will together if we work as a team. And work with your neighbors, work with your mentors, work with your friends. There’s a lot of resources here in the world, especially in the United States. I just think we need to tap into those resources and work effectively together.

Celeste Headlee:
So, in the difference between whether someone is employer or employee, a lot of your work has been not just with raising kids, as we’ve talked about already, but you’ve worked a lot with business leaders and figuring out how to make your methods work to inspire other people to do their best work. And that’s really difficult in 2020. Regardless of what workplace anybody’s in, it’s been impacted by the pandemic. How does the idea of encouraging other people’s success, how do the strategies change when you’re doing that sometimes from a distance, or when you’re doing it during an extended period of crisis?

Esther Wojcicki:
I think TRICK. Trust, respect, independence, collaboration, kindness works even more effectively, and it’s more important in the corporate world during the crisis. Because if you just think about it, we’re all working from home. And when you work from home, you can’t micromanage the other person. You have to trust them and respect them. And the fact that that person that you’re talking about, or your team, if the team feels like they are trusted and respected by their leader, they will rise to that occasion.

Celeste Headlee:
I want to interrupt you here just for a second, Esther, because I’ve heard … and I’ve actually read things online from employees saying that because they’re either working from home, or there’s some version of remote work, that they’re being required to create whole diaries of how they spent their day, and the accountability measures went through the roof. It sounds to me like you would say that’s an employer not trusting their staff.

Esther Wojcicki:
That is absolutely the case. It’s an employer not trusting their staff. And I can say that those are counterproductive. Just think of all the time that you spent making up that whatever, diary all day.

Esther Wojcicki:
I think it’s terrible. I mean, what I think people should do … you should have a joint project. You should be working as a team. I think in most companies everybody works in teams, and the teams should have a goal, and then the idea is how to achieve that goal, and not micromanage the steps of how to get to that goal. If you don’t feel respected, trust me, you won’t be trustworthy. Because you feel like you’re going to try to get out of doing whatever you need to do and not work to your best.

Esther Wojcicki:
I can tell you, students, teenagers, they’re just younger versions of yourself. I have found that in the class when I trust my students to succeed, and to do something with their peers, and to have a goal that they all agree on, I don’t have to micromanage. And not only that, their achievement levels are off the charts. They believe in themselves, and they are very concerned about making sure that their team members also appreciate the work they’re doing.

Esther Wojcicki:
I think it’s team psychology that is so important in these days, and trust and respect are part of that. And then giving people independence, and then allowing them to collaborate … and honestly kindness. Kindness and compassion. That’s what the world needs today. We all need that. We all make mistakes. And so if somebody on a team makes a mistake, if we can just say, “Okay, no problem. Why don’t you redo it, or why don’t you get some more advice for doing it, or why don’t you look for another supplier,” or something. Because there’s going to be a lot of missed opportunities because of what’s going on in the world.

Celeste Headlee:
While people are worried not only about themselves but about the people they love and care about, about their jobs, how do you keep morale up? How do you inspire people?

Esther Wojcicki:
I think you inspire people through stories, and stories of what other people did in times of stress. There’s a lot of stories out there. There’s a lot of movies out there. I wouldn’t watch the depressing movies, and there’s a lot of depressing movies. No depressing movies, no horror movies, none of those movies.

Esther Wojcicki:
But if you think about all the people that suffered through World War II, and the ones that have succeeded, a lot of people succeeded in spite of the tragedies that happened during World War II. We too will make it through. And there’s a lot of success stories of the epidemic in 1918. These stories help give you strength and help you feel like you are able to endure whatever is out there. We need those stories now. That’s why religion … religion inspires a lot of people. But in today’s world, a lot of people are mixed about whether they have religious beliefs in their lives. But whether you do or don’t, inspirational stories are the way to go.