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Sound Off: Lessons Learned

What wisdom did you learn the hard way?

Scissors cutting through a piece of paper that says “I can’t do it.”
Image: Getty Images

Spring 2024

Photo Credit: Advantage Media Group

Scott Freidheim ’87, ’91 MBA, managing partner at Freidheim Capital and author of Code of Conduct: Tales of the Roller Coaster of Life

At the 2006 World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, I was invited to a lunch hosted by the chairman and CEO of ABN AMRO, a large Dutch bank. There were 10 of us, including the marquee guest, Jean-Claude Trichet, head of the European Central Bank. The conversation was a master class on central bank policy; every other guest at the table was a CEO with about 50 years of relevant experience. Among such formidable intellectual adversaries, I was weaponless, naked. The two-hour lunch felt endless. Just because you’re invited doesn’t mean you belong. Achievement stands on a foundation of preparedness.  

Photo Credit: Matthew Jordan Smith © 2023

Felicia D. Henderson, associate professor of radio/television/film 

As a writer, director and producer for more than 20 years, I spent a lot of time as a Hollywood pretzel — bending and twisting myself into what others suggested I had to be. I wasn’t smart enough. I was too smart. I fought too hard for my vision. I didn’t fight hard enough. “You should work on making others more comfortable with you,” an agent once told me. After too many years of playing the pretzel girl game, I was suffering from anxiety and debilitating migraines, deftly hidden by a smile. I’ve learned you can contort yourself into a million doppelgangers, but someone will still have an issue with who you are. So, I’ve chosen to be my authentic self. The only changes I need to make are the ones that help me become a more kind, giving, ambitious, creatively courageous version of the person I already am.

Photo Credit: Marco Calderon 

Cydney Brown, sophomore majoring in communications from Philadelphia 

It took almost giving up on my dream for me to learn that the only opinion of yourself that matters is your own. Writing poetry has always been the best way to express myself, but in February 2020 I almost quit because of negative comments I had received. So I took a self-love workshop. I did daily affirmations and continued to write about topics close to my heart. With this newfound confidence, I became the 2023 Northeast Regional Youth Poet Laureate.  

Stephanie Boron ’12 MS, assistant clinical professor of communication sciences and disorders 

I like to joke that I got a master’s degree in speech and language pathology to get better at making small talk. I didn’t know about my highly masked autistic brain at the time. More than a decade into my career, I stumbled upon online spaces where autistic folks were sharing their lived experiences. I began to notice the voices that were absent from my training — and I realized our practice may have been unintentionally perpetuating neuronormativity. Then I became curious about the workings of my own brain. I began to center autonomy, accessibility, consent and genuine connection in my work. Now, in all that I do, I ask, “How might we amplify autistic voices?” 

Photo Credit: Justin Barbin ’11

Mark Graban ’95, author of The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation 

As an engineer, I was taught at Northwestern to find or calculate the correct answer to a problem. But I’ve learned that workplaces are more complicated than that. The “technically correct” solution, such as a new inventory management policy for a factory, isn’t always accepted by others due to factors including organizational politics and personal fears. I used to bemoan this but have learned to accept it.  I’ve learned not to label people as “resistant to change” and to instead focus on better understanding their concerns. That’s helped me be more effective in leading change. 

Photo Credit: Jason Smith 

Annie Krall ’19, ’20 MS, co-anchor and reporter at KSDK, an NBC affiliate in St. Louis  

While traveling in Spain with some of my best friends from Northwestern, I got lost. I was our designated navigator, but Google Maps kept getting me turned around — so I led us in circles. [I learned a simple but challenging lesson]: Admit that you’re confused. Had I handed the phone to one of my friends [and asked for help], I would have saved all of us a lot of time. 

As I eventually learned in Barcelona, as well as at Northwestern, life gets easier when you ask for help.  

[And sometimes, getting lost is OK too.] Getting lost in an academic text is just as empowering as writing one. Getting lost on your professional path to a dream job is terrifying but ultimately rewarding. Getting lost on your personal journey to [find happiness] is admirable beyond comparison.    

Get lost and Go ’Cats. 

Layla Zaidi, a sophomore social policy and political science major from McLean, Va.  

For most of my life I have chased perfection and greatness in everything I do. But when I came to college, I had to face the fact that I would not be great at everything. It’s the hardest lesson I’ve learned — that I cannot do something or that it is not within my skill set. But I’ve also learned that that’s OK. I’ve cycled through majors and received countless club rejection letters. But those experiences have taught me that having weaknesses does not make you less of a person. It makes your strengths just that much more important. 


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