Marissa Mayer, Google's Vice President of Location and Local Services, got into every college she applied to and had 14 job offers when she left Stanford with a Master's in Computer Science and chose to work at Google in 1999.
"Don't your friends hate you?" Josh Tyrangiel, editor of Bloomberg Businessweek, asked Mayer Tuesday night at the 92Y where she was interviewed in a Campaign for the American Conversation series.
Mayer laughed and said, "I think a lot of people could do it, but a lot of people don't do it."
Not everyone applies to 10 colleges. Not everyone looks for jobs they might not want. But Mayer always did. She stressed the importance of always having options in life and evaluating every single one of them.
Perhaps the most poignant thing she left the audience with was the idea of perspective -- whether it's evaluating 10 colleges, 14 job offers or whether to leave work early for a prior engagement.
She described an agonizing 8-hour discussion with a Stanford friend when making her decision to go to Google.
He said something to the effect of, "Marissa, you're thinking about this all wrong. You're putting so much pressure on yourself to choose the right one. I see a lot of good choices, one of which you'll choose, and give everything to."
Maybe there is no such thing as a right answer or the right choice in life for hard working, high achieving people. But there are choices. And when we choose, we give it our all.
I was lucky enough to get the last question of the night, submitted anonymously on an index card, a favorite of mine: "What's the best advice you've ever gotten?"
And her shorter version was this: "Find your rhythm."
Find what matters to you and make time for it.
"You can't have everything you want, but you can have everything that matters to you," she said.
Mayer said she believes there's no such thing as burnout -- you can work really hard for the rest of your life as long as you know what matters most to you and make sure you get that.
What causes burnout, she said, is the build up of resentment at having to give up what really matters. Is it dinner with friends on Tuesday nights? A movie with your husband on the weekends?
Whatever it is, make sure you get it because otherwise you'll spend the rest of the week resenting what you didn't get to have -- what work deprived you of, and you'll be less productive.
In her "find your rhythm" comment, Mayer touched on a key management tool: Make sure your employees have room to keep their rhythm -- it'll make them happier and much more successful. If Joe needs to pick up his kids every day at 6 p.m., don't make him late. She described the moment a child sees a parent walk in late to a recital, and there were heads nodding in the audience. Don't be the cause of that.
Mayer's wonderful storytelling also surfaced this gem: A self-professed nerd, she attended a science camp one summer where they heard from various speakers and professors, one of whom she was particularly blown away by.
She said she and the rest of the "campers" walked around all day talking about how impressive this Professor Zunes was when one of the "counselors," a Rhodes scholar or someone older and wiser, approached them and said they were thinking about it all wrong: "It's not what Zunes knows, it's how Zunes thinks."