THE BLOG
05/12/2014 03:10 pm ET Updated Jul 12, 2014

Size Doesn't Matter: 5 Lessons I Learned From My Mom

Last year for Father's Day, I wrote was has been my most popular post to date, "Don't Work With Jerks: 5 Lessons I Learned From My Dad." The post got an incredible reaction, from people who appreciated the lessons from my dad and shared many wonderful lessons from their fathers as well. So, it seemed only fitting, that in honor of Mother's Day, I should share some of the lessons I learned from my mom.

My mother is an incredible woman. She faced her share of challenges and stared them down with true "grit" and determination. Through her example, she showed me it's possible to have a successful career you love and to be a great mother at the same time, even if you don't do both of them perfectly every day -- and that's OK. I've learned so much from her over the years. Here are a few of my favorite lessons:

1. Size doesn't matter
Ok, I didn't mean this in the way some people may have thought.... I did, however, mean it in the literal sense. For those of you who know me, you know I am petite at 5'0" (152cm) tall. When I first became a CEO, I was told that there are even fewer CEO's under 5'7" than there are female CEO's -- in effect, I had two hits against me. I didn't see it that way, however, partially because I have an amazing role model in my mother, who showed me I could do anything, no matter my size, my gender or any other area that some might believe would hold me back.

In fact, my mother did way more than overcome her underrepresented status as a petite woman. (She is even smaller than me at 4'11'' / 150cm.) She also beat cancer when she was just 27 years old. In her late 20's, she was diagnosed with parotid cancer in her neck and head, and had surgery to remove the tumor. The surgery was successful in saving her life, but resulted in half of her face becoming paralyzed. Many people would be knocked down by a challenge like that, but not my mom. She handled it with grace and belief in herself and was able to build a thriving life as a mother and professional, even while managing with the permanent effects of that surgery.

Because here's the secret: She never believed she was too small, too disabled or too anything else to be successful. She knew she would be great at her job and be a great mom and it didn't matter what anyone else thought. Her confidence came from within. I'm lucky she has passed that example on to me, and I hope to do the same for my own daughters.

2. Giving is a gift
My mom loves to shop. Some say she could do it professionally, and she is especially gifted at finding amazing bargains in all sorts of unexpected places. Here's the twist: She mainly shops for other people. She loves to give gifts and basks in the happiness it brings others. She expresses her love for people by thinking about them all year long and picking out things she thinks they might like from her travels in various places. By the time the holidays come, she already has bags of little gifts ready for everyone in the family.

For a few years, we tried to ask her to stop giving us so many gifts. We told her we already had enough "things" and didn't need anything else. But then we realized something important -- the giving of gifts made her happy. It's not just about the recipient, giving is also a gift to the giver. My mom is a giver in all aspects of her life, not just with family, but also with friends and with her community in the large numbers of non-profits she supports.

And she is on to something there. In fact, there is now a lot of research that shows that altruism is strongly connected to happiness. The idea that people are happier when they are helping or giving to others has been shown in study after study, including this study from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, showing that helping others also makes us happier at work. I have learned from her passion for giving and try to live up to her example, both by choosing work that gives back and in the support I give my community outside of work.

3. If it doesn't exist, invent it
In addition to a love of helping others, my mother looks for ways to make a longer-term, more systemic impact in the work she does. She is amazing at finding gaps and helping create new programs to fill them.

One recent example is her creation of the Advancing Leaders Fellowship for World Learning. As a board member at World Learning, she saw students coming back from great programs like the School for International Training, bursting with ideas about how to make the world better based on their experiences, but with no organized way for them to act on those ideas. So, instead of lamenting that there were no programs in place to help address this issue, she created one. The Advancing Leaders Fellowship provides comprehensive training in social innovation, and a $10,000 grant to 10 winning applicants per year. The first round of fellows are pursuing projects to address education, healthcare and more in countries like Cameroon, Chile, Nepal and Tanzania.

My mother has invented programs like these countless times, and the ripple effect from the people who benefit from these programs makes their impact enormous. We see this happening at Change.org as well - people who have the courage to start campaigns around issues they care about, and then drive systemic change that benefits a much larger group (like Sarah Kavanaugh, the Mississippi teenager who recently persuaded both Coke and Pepsi to drop BVO from all their drinks).

I learned from my mom to always think creatively about challenges, no matter how large, and if an obvious solution doesn't already exist, then the best bet is to create one.

4. Be determined in following your passions
In her mid-30's, my mother decided that she wanted to change careers. She was in a job she didn't love, that didn't challenge her sufficiently, and she wanted more. She was a speech pathologist at the time and decided she wanted to have a career in business. So, instead of just wishing she had chosen a different path, she made it happen, despite a very challenging path to get there.

In order to make this change, my mom (already a mother of two) went to business school at night, while working full-time during the day. When she completed school, because she was a career changer with limited relevant work experience, she had 50 different interviews without receiving a single job offer. Did she give up at that point? No.

On her 51st interview, someone offered her a job. That job was at Towers Perrin (now Towers Watson), a leading HR Consulting firm, where she spent the next 20 years, eventually becoming one of their most successful consulting partners. Her career there led to more success, including board positions at the Smithsonian and at Emerson University.

She taught me one of life's most basic lessons, which has been helpful to me throughout my life and most recently as an entrepreneur -- If you really believe in something, never give up.

5. Game mechanics work at home, too
There is a lot of talk in the consumer Internet world about game mechanics and how you can drive certain behavior by using incentives that play into human nature and the drive we all have to compete, to be validated by others and more.

My mom may be the original inventor of game mechanics, as she was using these techniques from the time my sisters and I were very small. She had a game for nearly everything, from a contest where we raced to get dressed in the mornings to special board games she created to help us learn the multiplication tables.

Perhaps my favorite of the games was the "Take Me Day," where she and my dad would surprise us and take us somewhere without telling us where we were going. The location was usually nearby, but sometimes farther away, in which case they'd also pack for us as a surprise. It was brilliant -- they mainly did this to avoid the complaints that might surface if we knew where we were going - but to us it felt like magic. (I was able to return the favor when I took my parents on a "Take Me Day" in the Brazilian Amazon during my college semester abroad there. It was a treat for all of us.)

My mom taught me that life can be full of fun and surprises if you choose to look at it that way.

So thank you, Mom! These lessons and many others have been so helpful to me and I hope I can pass along as much wisdom to my daughters as you have to me.

And for people reading this post, if you like it, please share it; I'd hate to have my mother feel bad that her post was not as popular as the one about my dad!

I'd also love to hear about the lessons you've learned from your mother, or any other important people in your life. Please share those in the comments.

-Jennifer Dulski

@jdulski

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn Influencers.

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