From the Trailer Park to Google, Chanel and the CIA

 In Career Development

You don’t need money or worldly experience to raise successful children.

That’s me on the left, and Julie on the right.

No one could have ever guessed that two shy little girls who liked to dress up in ballet tutus would become future employees at Google and Chanel (my sister Julie) or the CIA (where I ended up).

Growing up in a trailer park teeming with kids was a pretty fantastic place to spend our formative years. But rural Central Florida in the early 1980s wasn’t exactly a stepping stone to prestigious careers in Washington D.C. or Silicone Valley.

Instead of prepping us for Ivy League educations, our parents focused on the basics and working hard to move us more solidly into the middle class. We rarely ate out at restaurants. We relied heavily on hand-me-downs from neighborhood playmates. 

There were no special tutors or SAT prep classes. There was no talk about the kind of colleges we should attend. There were no discussions of politics, economics, technology, business or international affairs.

That’s why we still pinch ourselves and wonder, “How did we get here?” Though we weren’t exactly trying, passion and pure grit would take us far beyond the borders of Central Florida to places like New York City, San Francisco, Cairo, Dubai, and Paris.

Julie Clow, my younger sister, earned a PhD in Organizational Behavior and Development and worked as human development expert at Google and an HR executive at Chanel.  I acquired a Masters degree in Arab Studies and spend ten years serving as an undercover operative and counterterrorism specialist in the CIA. 

So how did we achieve so much in our careers and go places we had never even dreamed of?  What was the recipe for our success?  

The good news is that it had nothing to do with financial resources or worldly knowledge and everything to do with the attitudes our parents cultivated in us. Our stories illustrate that the goal shouldn’t be to get your child into the right preschool, prepschool, or Ivy League institution. The secret to success is far simpler and more profound and allows your child to make the most of whatever circumstances they encounter.

Here’s the ingredients for our success:

  • The power of positive thinking. Starting at a very young age, we were schooled in Zig Ziglar, Rich Devos and Norman Vincent Peale. At only three and four years old, we listened to voices over the cassette recorder telling us we could be winners if we wanted to. We remember thinking, “I want to be a winner!” What could that possibly mean to a pre-schooler? As it turns out, a lot. Don’t underestimate the power of the words—both positive and negative—to seep into little minds. Your words have the potential to shape your child in profound ways. Those simple concepts actually defined who we were as human beings. We have keen memories of believing that we were valuable members of society, full of potential, and able to achieve greatness—assumptions that ran through our heads before we ever started school. It never dawned on us to think any differently. 
  • The importance of setting goals. In our parents’ bid to engender a more stable financial situation, they joined Amway during the days of its explosive growth in the United States. We were hauled from seminar to seminar listening to successful people teach Amway distributors how to dream big, set goals, and move ahead in the business. The first family goal that my parents set was a trip to Disney World in Orlando.  To clearly define this goal, they affixed a picture of Mickey Mouse on the refrigerator and my parents worked diligently to earn that dreamy vacation. This taught us that things don’t just happen, you have to know what you want and work hard for them. 
  • The value of learning.  Whether it was the math kit Mom ordered in the mail, the microscope we received on our birthday, or the books she read to us that highlighted the value of determination, we were imbued with a burning desire to learn about the world around us. Mom cultivated this curiosity, a fire that could not be quenched regardless of age.  As a result, we never knew we were supposed to dislike school—au contraire! We loved school. We “played school” even when we were home on summer break. Learning was achieving, and achieving was fun. We have embarked upon a lifetime of learning that has propelled us from one challenge to the next. It’s what keeps us moving forward and motivates us to reach for new summits.

Aptitude is important, but there are a lot of smart people in the world. That is not what sets one child apart from another. Neither does attending the right university.

For us, the key was having a can-do attitude, setting goals and working hard to achieve them. We had a deep curiosity and drive to learn and this ensured we would survive the bumps in the road, to include life-altering challenges such as teenage pregnancy, autoimmune disease, rejection by potential employers, and being sent to multiple war zones.

Your future is not defined by your current circumstances, but by how you respond to them. That’s what you should remind your children every day.  And don’t worry, they are listening.

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  • Crystal

    Excellent article Michele, great insight!

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