12/29/2014 11:44 am ET Updated Feb 28, 2015

Science and Serendipity: Seven Lessons for My Younger Self

I've been thinking a lot lately about why I chose to major in electrical engineering in both undergrad and grad school (way back in the "olden days" as my daughters would say). It was a choice more driven by pragmatism than passion; after all, what did I know about the "real world" back then? I chose it because I was good at math and science, and while I liked to read, I didn't particularly care for writing or public speaking (I considered myself an introvert). It seemed like a safe choice, one that would set me on a path to land a decent job.

My decision to continue on to business school was altogether different. It required me to shed the safety net and made me a bit uncomfortable. The hardest part for me was the required classroom participation with a heavy emphasis on team projects and leadership. As an engineer, I viewed problems and challenges with great clarity -- and the answers were typically pretty black or white. In business school, this notion of participation, engagement and forced collaboration was foreign to me -- but as unsettling as it was, in hindsight, it was the most valuable part of my MBA experience.

That experience ultimately united my passion for technology with a passion for people. And for more than two decades, I've enjoyed a career that's embodied both of these passions. I'm happy with how everything turned out, but it sure would have been nice to bring those passions together a lot sooner! If I could talk with my younger self, I'd share these seven lessons I've learned:

  1. Building a foundation in STEM is fantastic, not only because of the richness of the knowledge itself and the associated facts, outcomes, and insights. STEM also fosters a natural inquisitiveness about what works, how things work and why they work (or don't!).
  2. Developing a sensitivity towards and understanding of people is a must. From trying out different clubs and associations to raising your hand for that special project to volunteering in the community, seek out as many opportunities as you can to broaden your perspective about people. Put yourself out there!
  3. Know that there are many times when things are not black or white. The world doesn't work in a solely binary fashion. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable, and learn to appreciate nuances and become a master at guiding compromise.
  4. Be open -- really open -- to serendipity. There is no magic formula. Whether you call it luck, fate, coincidence, karma or something else -- be open to opportunity. Simply being open to discovery will, by definition, avail you to experiences and outcomes you never thought probable or possible.
  5. Don't plan too far ahead. What you want in your 20s will be different than in your 30s, 40s, etc. But -- do have a plan, just don't miss the present because you're too focused on the future.
  6. Take care of yourself -- with the "bookends" of real health being physical and spiritual. Without your health, you have nothing -- and you cannot have the impact you aspire to have.
  7. Life is about people. True happiness comes when you're helping others. That's how you make a real impact. Relationships are everything. Be sure to foster meaningful ones.

I'd like to think my younger self would have been receptive to this advice, but who knows? Maybe it will prove helpful to you or someone you know. For sure, I'm doing my best to share my experiences with my kids! I'm fortunate to lead a life that embraces both science and serendipity -- even though I didn't realize it early on. It's a life that is continuously filled with possibilities. Maybe that's why one of my favorite quotes is this one from French microbiologist Louis Pasteur: "Chance favors the prepared mind!" So...go take a chance!