The career-altering decisions I made at 13 years old

27 June 2016
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At 13, I could not foresee the long-lasting impact of some of the decisions I made under the wise counsel of my parents. But now in my mid-50s and reflecting back, I can clearly see how  my career has been dramatically impacted  in a positive way by those decisions.

MANILA, Philippines – On the surface, it might be difficult for one to imagine that decisions a 13-year-old and their parents make will dramatically influence the child’s career into his or her 20s, 30s, 40s, and even 50s. But the fact is it’s true. Most parents believe that the choice of school and quality of education will impact a child for the rest of their lives, so if this is the case, why is it so hard to believe that other decisions during childhood wouldn’t have a similar impact?

Steve Jobs, the iconic founder of Apple Computers, said it right in his famous 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward, but you can connect them looking backwards.”

At the time I was 13, I could not foresee the long-lasting impact of some of the decisions I made under the wise counsel of my parents. But now in my mid-50s and reflecting back, I can clearly see how my career has been dramatically impacted and altered in a positive way by those decisions.

At 13 I graduated from St. Vivian’s Grade School and was preparing to enter the esteemed Cincinnati St. Xavier High School, an all-boys, top-10 academic school in the US. For the first time in my academic life, I had the luxury of being able to choose some of my own classes. And how cool was that! My first taste of academic freedom!

The first choice was, I had to choose a foreign language that I would take for at least three out of the four years of high school. I had a range of choices: Russian seemed “pretty cool”; German was appealing as my mother was German and I could learn the language of her homeland; Spanish, of course living in the US, seemed to be quite useful. And then there was French.

I didn’t really have any inkling on what to do. So my father, Stan Lafferty, led me to the globe of the world we had in the house. He showed me the countries where people speak Russian, Spanish, German, and then finally, French. He highlighted how French was spoken in multiple countries in Europe, in Quebec, in the Caribbean, and widely spoken in Africa. His point was, if you want to really be “around the world,” then French was my best bet. French is everywhere.

So I took French.  I took four years in high school. I even took another two years later in university. And then I let it go. I finished school. I went to P&G in marketing in the US. Then one day, five years later, in the late 1980s, when the world was just starting to talk “globalization,” P&G came around and asked everyone, “What languages do you speak?” and other questions about international options. I was a brand manager in laundry detergents at the time.  So I put down that I spoke French, given that I had six years of it in school. P&G put it into the computer and this was used to match up people with possible roles around the world.

A few months later, apparently the P&G operation in Morocco needed a laundry brand manager who also spoke French! And my name popped out! So P&G came to me and asked if I would go. So I went on a look-see visit, they “tested” my French, and while admitting that I was rusty, they felt I had enough of a base to succeed. So they offered me the job — a two-year assignment. That was now 26 years ago and I have never returned to the US. Never looked back due to the doors opened by my Moroccan experiences.  I worked five glorious years in North Africa. I went on to Europe, the Middle East, and finally to my beloved Philippines.

My entire life and career took a different and wonderful turn because I decided to take French at 13 years old. I would never have lived in this wonderful country had I not decided to take French, which led me to moving to Morocco, which then kick-started my international career! Thanks to my father, Stan Lafferty, who wisely pushed me to think globally in 1977, when the world was far from globalized.

The second decision came from my mother, Celeste Lafferty. On top of foreign language, I also had to pick electives. My mom was a former secretary. She could type and take shorthand. She knew I would one day have to type term papers and write essays. So she mandated that I take a semester of typing. Typing! I cried. I literally had tears streaming down my face. I imagined the teasing I would take. A new high school and here I was taking typing as an elective! I was humiliated.

But she would not relent. She mandated it. She told me she could not always be around to help me type my work. I needed to learn how to type properly and type fast. So into typing class I went. For nearly four months I took typing, one hour per day.

I learned the “home keys” (A, S, D, F, J, K, L, ;) and these are where you place four fingers of each hand. I learned why every keyboard in the world has notches on the “F” and “J” keys — because this is where you place your index fingers within the home keys! I learned every single keystroke and mastered every letter, number, and punctuation mark without looking. By the end of four months I could type without looking at 55 words per minute.

My mom was right. Not only was my life so easy typing term papers later in high school and college, where I could easily out-type every single classmate, but she also could not have foreseen the globalization of IT and Microsoft Word. Today everyone has a laptop or workstation. Everyone types on their own. The days of handwriting a document and giving it to a secretary to type have gone the way of the dinosaurs. Everybody has to type!

I am now in my mid 50s. I grew up long before the home computer. I learned to type on a manual typewriter. I remember how excited I was in college to get an electric typewriter!  I didn’t grow up like millennials today with a keyboard thrust into my hands the minute I came out of the womb.

But here I am, having those same millennials coming into my office from time to time and asking me, “Boss, how are you so efficient?” I can handle the workload as good as, if not better, than those half my age. And one of the key reasons is that I type faster than most professional secretaries. I can get things done quickly. I see people banging on the keys and having to look down at the keyboard and I suppress a smile. They struggle for 20 words a minute, and here I am cranking along at 55! Honestly, one of the biggest factors that has helped me assimilate into bigger and bigger roles is my ability to write fast. And this means typing. And it all goes back to a mandate my mother gave me at 13 years old. Odds are, had she let me pick my electives, I would not be a CEO today. It’s as simple as that.

And that’s the story. Decisions at 13 can and will impact the rest of our children’s lives, like it or not. It’s that important. We live in a global world. Keyboards are here to stay. Make your kids learn foreign languages — the more, the better. And make them take typing. Have them learn good keyboard skills before they learn bad habits. They will thank you. And thank you. And thank you, for the rest of their lives. They may not like it now, but that’s good parenting. Trading short term for long term.

Stan and Celeste Lafferty are no longer with us, but not a week goes by that I don’t lift my eyes to the heavens and utter a small prayer of thanks, for so many things. Certainly including typing and French classes.

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