As part of my ongoing Rich Thinking® research, I interview “successful” women around the world. There are many different ways of defining success, but lately I have been talking to a group of women who enjoyed a very particular kind of success. They were on the television quiz show Jeopardy!
There are about 180 million women in the United States and Canada, and in the decades that the current version of the show has been playing, there have only been about 4,000 women contestants. That doesn’t quite make them “one in a million,” merely in the top 0.02%!
I spoke to several of this select group about how they feel about their intelligence, how they look at success, and what advice they’d give younger women. They break the clichés about women by cheerfully owning their intelligence, but have their own sometimes unorthodox ways of defining success.
Barbara Stewart, CFA: Do you think of yourself as really smart?
Kerry Greene: Yes. I’m a very fast reader and I process things quickly. I always feel like jumping in and speeding up conversations with others. And people always told me that one day I wouldb be on Jeopardy!
Growing up in my family, we played tons of board games and I was very competitive in that setting. In school, I wasn’t athletic but my brain gave me a competitive edge. I’m introverted by nature so being able to assert myself by using my intelligence was my way to gain an identity.
Jane Tamar Joseph, CFA: I think of myself as academically smart. Other people are more strategic or politically astute. I watched Jeopardy! for years and I always seemed to know a lot of the answers. I really enjoy knowing things and I remember facts better than most people. Facts just stay in my head. This is why my mother told me I should be a lawyer. I realize this type of intelligence is a gift.
Claudia Perry: Yes, I think of myself as a smart women — I never doubted that. I also appreciate that intelligence is a gift. I was raised not to be particularly shy about my abilities. My parents were smart and we were encouraged to achieve. Because of this I found it irrelevant if my schoolmates made fun of me and called me “smarty pants.” I knew this would have nothing to do with my long-term plan.
Lori Lander Goodman: I’ve never doubted my intelligence, but like many women, I’m competitive in socially acceptable ways and I hide my competitiveness. For example, if I’m playing a board game, I really like winning, but I will choose to be collaborative and I’ll try to give credit to others. I’m well aware that a strong family support system has helped me have confidence to take risks, try new things, and make mistakes. Mostly I’m competitive with myself.
Monikka Mann, Sr.: Growing up I thought I was smart because people told me that I was. My school in Georgia identified me as gifted — they had a TAG (talented and gifted) program. I had some amazing teachers who understood that my family situation was not the best and really helped encourage me and provide me the resources that I needed to achieve my full potential. This all led me to the conclusion that I am bright.
Kathleen Waits: Everyone who has ever met me knows that I’m a fountain of broad, well-remembered (and sometimes useless) knowledge. I am grateful for having had a mother (born in 1924) who was a New York Times reporter. Her sister, my aunt (born in 1920) was a medical doctor. All our lives we were raised with the idea that “Yeah, go ahead and show off what you know. Not everyone will like it but at least one guy will.” It is sad that we still live in a society where women are often penalized for being overtly smart. As a result, sometimes even the smartest women have it in the back of their head that they shouldn’t show how smart they are.
Megan Rafferty Barnes: Yes, I’m damn smart! Though I think I peaked at 17 before I knew how much I didn’t know. Environment matters. I grew up with brothers and it was mostly me and a bunch of guys in high school who were playing trivia games. My family encouraged competition. We played board games a lot. Give women the opportunity to compete and see how they like it!
How do you define success?
Greene: I feel like I define success in a different way than the rest of the world seems to. I’m not really interested in amassing a whole lot of wealth, and during my career as an attorney and then in science, I was always trying to help people. These days I volunteer representing kids in abuse and neglect cases. That is what makes me feel successful. I am moving towards spending half the year living in my cottage in Prince Edward Island in Canada. It is my favorite place on earth. Living in the US doesn’t make sense to me anymore.
Joseph: To me success is being happy in your personal relationships and being a resilient person who can deal with setbacks and move forward. Money is a tool, an enabler: It has to be used wisely or it can undermine you. If you were born into privilege, you might be less motivated and less happy. I also think our positive experiences can make us happy. In my case, I always worked hard so that I could afford to travel.
Perry: Success for me is getting up every morning being able to look at myself in the mirror, not feel like I’ve missed out on too much, and knowing that I can put one foot in front of the other with sort of a destination in mind.
Goodman: The most important form of success for me was raising kids and helping them become independent people who can make a positive contribution to the world. I feel good about having a job and owning a home. I feel good that I am free to make choices in life and I make sure that my actions are in line with my values. And at my eulogy, I want people to say that I made an impact on their lives.
Mann, Sr.: My definition has certainly changed over time. I used to think it was about material possessions. But now, after experiencing Hurricane Harvey in 2017, what’s more important to me is that my children are proud of me and that my family is taken care of. If I can do those two things, then I feel like I am a success.
Waits: I measure success by what you contribute to society and having gratitude for what you have rather than thinking the grass is greener in a place with more material things. Both my mother and my aunt had incredibly successful careers, and they inspired me. Like both of them, for me, success involved combining work that is important to you with having a family. And make sure to do work you are spiritually connected to.
Barnes: To me, success is being of service to others and having a happy family. I’ve realized the choices I’ve made in life have not really been the most financially prudent (serving two years in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, serving nine years and counting as a stay-at-home mother). But as long as we have a roof over our heads and I have enough time to read, I am happy.
What is the best advice you can give to younger women?
Greene: Your dreams are important! Don’t just be programmed. Decide for yourself what you want to do for the next five and 10 years. When you make your own choices about where you want to live and who you want to live with, you will be in a strong position to defend those choices. As opportunities come up, you can decide what to do based on whether they are helping or hindering your progress in getting to where you want to be.
Joseph: Be calm. But do something! I recommend that young women go into overdrive early on. Do as much for your career as possible, as early as possible. It won’t get any easier later in life . . . you will be more tired. My mother didn’t think I should get my CFA designation just after I did my MBA — she thought I should devote time to socializing and meeting men. But in the end the CFA charter saved my bacon. When I was unemployed for a time, I found my next job on the CFA Institute job board! For several years I earned extra income grading CFA exams.
Perry: If you have gone to college, I urge you to maintain a connection with your alma mater. This way you will have “no cost” connections via a great network. You will have access to job postings and interesting discussions about societal issues.
Goodman: Learn to identify your own feelings and emotions and stay in tune with them. Learn how to balance all of that. We are socialized to see ourselves in relation to others. The sooner you can figure out who you want to be, and the sooner you can find your own place, the better.
Mann, Sr.: Take chances. Learn and experience new things. You might not achieve the goal that you initially set out to achieve. Instead you might get exposed to something else that will have a bigger impact on your life than you could ever imagine.
Waits: People need to define success for themselves. You should feel okay if you don’t want a life partner or if you don’t want children. And also don’t be ashamed if you do want traditional success like aspiring to be a CEO. Just realize that the system remains patriarchal and bigoted, so it’s going to be challenging. Always look for other women with whom you can share your personal and professional struggles. And you may find some supportive men too — often in surprising places!
Barnes: We see women in “helping professions” — they choose people and their welfare over money making. But maybe some women would like to have more options! I have three sons, but if I had three daughters, I would want them to compete. Why? Because we are all on an international stage these days. All of us need to compete to get our names out there. You have to be your own best advocate and put yourself out there. There is a lot of competition for YouTube videos, etc. — you need to have something to say and other people have to want to watch you. This is such a grand opportunity for fields like finance because there aren’t very many women and the rewards of competing will be that much greater!
Today’s winning strategy for business success? Bury the stereotypes about women.
Today, women are earners and executives, and make most household spending and financial decisions. Nearly everyone is in business of one form or another and today’s target customer is the smart woman. Understanding how she thinks, how she communicates, and how she behaves could be the difference between mediocre business results and great success.
My advice? Don’t buy in to the old feminine archetype of women as damsels in distress or “women in jeopardy.” Accept the feminine archetype of today and assume you are dealing with female customers who are smart, sensible, and capable. Just like the “Women of Jeopardy!”
All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.
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This piece was adapted from the CFA® Institute’s Enterprise Investor blog: