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How to build a career, not just a job

February 10, 2015, 12:30 PM UTC
Alyse Nelson
Alyse Nelson, President and Chief Executive Officer of Vital Voices.
Photograph by Lisa Nipp for Vital Voices

MPW Insider is one of several online communities where the biggest names in business answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: What is one piece of advice all millennials should take before entering the workforce? is written by Alyse Nelson, president and CEO of Vital Voices Global Partnership.

For a long time, leadership was synonymous with ‘those people at the top’. Fortunately, that’s not the case anymore. Influence isn’t just wielded from the corner office – it’s dispersed on a global scale. In today’s world, your age doesn’t determine your share of power. Millennials are already reshaping our world — stretching the limits of what’s possible and establishing new ways to interact, contribute and lead. We’re living in a time of exceptional innovation, and millennials have the opportunity to impact the world in historic ways. So, before choosing a career and entering the workforce, the one piece of advice I would give all millennials is this: identify your driving force.

For more than 20 years, I’ve had the privilege to work with women leaders from around the world. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that a person’s path to leadership is rarely planned out perfectly – it’s an experience that begins with the conviction to do something. This conviction is your personal mission – your driving force. Each of us has one. It’s an internal compass that inspires us to act. It propels us forward and sustains us in difficult times. Those who lead from a driving force live with a clear sense of purpose and multiplie their positive impact on the world. Sometimes the path to discovering this force will take you to places you couldn’t have imagined. As a matter of fact, I can remember exactly where I was when I realized my own driving force…

It was August 1995 and I was 21 years old. I was coming of age in an increasingly interconnected world, desperate to understand my purpose when I heard that the United Nations was planning its 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing, China. It was going to be the largest gathering of women leaders in history — I had to go. I bought the cheapest airline ticket I could find (one with four layovers) but as it turned out, buying the ticket was the easiest part. My request for a conference visa was denied, and only with help from the delegates I met in Beijing was I able to eventually wrangle my way in.

There I was. In a swarm of thousands of women representing every nation in the world; leaders working for change on big and small scales, in bustling cities and remote villages. Suddenly, I felt very small. I started wondering what I was doing there. Why did I feel so compelled to travel all this way?

Then, I got the clarity I needed. I remember standing in the hallway of an overflow room, listening to then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s now famous speech. I heard her proclaim “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.” Everyone felt the power of her words. You could feel a charge in the air. Here was a woman who used her voice to speak up for those whose voices were silenced or ignored. She was so certain of her conviction that she was willing to stake her name and reputation to defend it before the whole world.

I was stunned. I had come to Beijing questioning my place in the world and here was my answer. I knew I didn’t have the power or platform of someone like Hillary Clinton, but I had a voice, and I knew, then and there, that I wanted to use my voice to create a space for women around the world to be heard. I had found my driving force.

Beijing changed the trajectory of my career. It was the start of a journey that’s taken me around the world and shaped my understanding of leadership, determination, and how to live with purpose. So, to every millennial who is preparing to venture out from what’s familiar – whether it’s your home, your school or your country – don’t be afraid to chase your passion. You will find true fulfillment by identifying your driving force and staying true to yourself.

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