Barbara Mistick, Author of Stretch: How to Future-Proof Yourself for Tomorrow’s Workplace, On Starting Your Career

Mistick Photo

If I could pick one person to advise me on how to start my career or steer it towards the right direction, it would be Barbara Mistick. Mistick is the co-author of Stretch: How to Future-Proof Yourself for Tomorrow’s Workplace and the president of Wilson College with over 20 years of experience in the workplace. In our interview, Mistick imparted some of her wisdom on the best ways to get started at any entry-level position and how to grow as a professional.

Disclaimer: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

SHY: How can college students use Stretch, and what can they do while still in college to “future-proof” themselves? 

BM: I think one of the best things that college students can do is to take a tip from the book, and try and get as many experiences as they possibly can while they’re in college. What I find as a college president is that students who take full advantage of internships, externships, and experiential learning really get a chance to test out what it would be like to be in a particular career. That knowledge really helps them define and refine what they want to do during their college experience. I can tell you one story about a student who was an education major and didn’t take the opportunity to do internships along the way and then got to student teaching at the end. It’s an entirely different experience to go from just being theoretical about educational process and educational pedagogies to being in the classroom and trying to get a whole class full of middle school or high school students to listen and learn. She discovered when she got into the student teaching part that she really didn’t like it. She had to go back and restart when she’d already invested a lot of time into her college experience. So the best thing you can possibly do is to test out your career earlier instead of waiting until the end of your experience. That way, if you get practical experience and if it is giving you feedback that maybe this is not exactly what I want to be doing for the rest of my life, you get a chance to reset before you’re at the end of your college experience.

SHY: Are some majors better than others?

BM: I would say no. I think the most important thing is for you to be in a major that you feel passionate about, that you really enjoy and that you’re willing to research at great length. I certainly saw that, as Karie and I were writing this book, there were many moments at which it was really important that we were really passionate about this topic, because there’s always one more thing to research, one more thing to read, and another set of interviews to do. So you really have to be committed to whatever field or major you select. To add to that, I am a strong proponent for and strong believer in the importance of liberal arts. You still have a major and functional area in which you’re gathering expertise. But you also take a course of study that encourages you to communicate effectively, to be a great problem solver, be able to innovate and be curious long-term. What I had seen from talking to employers and what I had seen from lots of studies that looked at what students coming out of what institutions are most successful in the workforce today is that many employers (a lot of technology companies in particular) favor graduates that come out of liberal arts colleges, because they know that the functional expertise that you come with is only going to be at that kind of cutting edge for a short period of time. It’s going to be more about your willingness long-term to be a problem solver, to continue learning to communicate effectively and to be innovative – that’s what’s going to really distinguish you in those workplaces that are changing with the times.

SHY: If you could have readers take away one lesson from this book, what would it be?

BM: I think if you were to take away one message, it would be to take away the message that your professional development is on you. It’s on you to take responsibility for your career long-term. What I see is that people who are willing to stretch, who are willing to learn something new each day, that put their hands up and volunteer for new assignments, stay most engaged in their workplace. They can pick up all the tips and strategies that we offer in the book. So I say the number one thing is to feel empowered by the fact that your ability to stay relevant at work is in your hands. You don’t need to rely on your company for that kind of skill enhancement. You can try small things along the way that can make a big difference in your career. So I say that it’s on you.

SHY: This book is addressed to both novices and people who are experienced in their fields. Do you personally practice the advice you give?

BM: Yes. I feel like I’m stretching every single day to learn new things, to try out new experiences. So I feel that I personally practice all of the things that are in the book on a regular basis. And I find it exciting to learn something new every day and certainly being able to go around and talk about the book has given me a chance to talk to a lot of people that are doing different things, which helps me to keep stretching.

SHY: Out of the practices you apply in your personal life, what has been easiest to apply? What is the most challenging?

BM: I say that the easiest to apply for me is continuing to learn. We talk in the book about this whole perspective of earning a living. Many people talk about earning a living. That’s why we go to work and we get paychecks. That’s sort of what work is about. It’s earning a living. But my perspective on this and the perspective we talk about in the book is that it’s really about learning a living. What we meant by that is if you’ve learned new things every day, it expands your skills for the future and makes it possible for you to stay relevant over time. The best way to earn a living is by learning a living. So I think that’s the easiest thing for me. It excites me to learn something new each day. It doesn’t mean I can act on everything I learn, but I can pack away the things that I’m learning, then come back and take a look at them in greater depth when I need to call on those. When I’m in a situation that needs a different strategy, I have those experiences that I can go back to.

On the most difficult side, for me personally, is some of the advice that we’ve given to lots of other people and that we think is the key takeaway from our book, which is this idea of “five to thrive.” We talk a lot about the importance of networks and having a diverse network. And we came up with this strategy that if you have five people who make you feel like a better person, you should take the time to cultivate those five people and build a deeper relationship. That means seeing people on a regular basis and not just having an email conversation back and forth, but actually sitting down and spending some time with them in person. I have found trying to maintain all of those relationships and take the time that we have advocated for people is difficult to do. But I find that when I have that as a priority, then I’m much more likely to make it happen. And the benefit of hanging out with people that are smarter than me is really worth making time for.

SHY: Who is your real-life superhero?

BM: I’ve had a number of those across my career. I had a tremendous college president a number of years ago who I learned a lot from. She was one of my key mentors in life. She had an incredible ability to really manage and lead collaboratively. I learned so much from working with her and having the benefit of her experience. And when I came into this world of education, she was really one of my “five to thrive,” and I was able to sit down with her on a pretty regular basis to talk about the challenges that I was having, being in a new community and new culture. So she was really one of my heroes.

I think on a superhero basis, people that everybody would know, the folks that inspire me the most are those that take a passion for a particular topic and are totally focused on making that a reality. So not too many years ago, there was a woman who started a entire campaign against landmines out of her home and ended up winning the Nobel Peace Prize because of her work. She was able to do that all from her home. I think that is really remarkable. It really shows you the power of having a passion and being able to then work your network and make so many things possible. Her name is Jody Williams. She started this campaign in her living room, but she was able to leverage her passion for the topic and the importance of ridding the world of landmines and get other people to come in. Talk about “five to strive:” she had a list of celebrities and policy makers to really change the world. I think those type of people are my heroes because they leave the world better than they found it.

SHY: What is your real-life superpower?

BM: What I have found most satisfying in my career is to be able to seek an action and then be able to find a way to make those things happen. I think that my superpower is to see what’s possible and then to be able to back up from what’s possible and figure out the right steps to be able to get to what’s possible. So over time, I found that’s the thing I enjoy doing most and that I have a good ability to do – to see the possibilities and see how to get there.

SHY: How would you like to be remembered?

BM: Right now, what I feel really passionate about both for my college and also in terms of writing this book is really about getting people to be engaged at work. If I can encourage a few more people to feel that they’re relevant and that the work they’re doing is important and to feel good about that day in and day out, that would really make me feel great. We wrote in the book about someone who was really a superhero who is no longer with us. Fred Rogers, who I worked with in Pittsburgh for a couple of years, was a television entrepreneur and in many ways a T.V. evangelist. His evangelism was about encouraging children to be engaged and to be curious. And he had such a tremendous impact on children all around the world. It was phenomenal. But the thing about Fred that I remember most, because I worked with him towards the end of his career, was that he stayed engaged in his work until the day he died. It was remarkable to me. So people at work, they absolutely loved Fred. Many of them had worked with him for 15 or 20 years, and they wanted to protect him because they knew he was sick and he needed some time for his family and other things. So they wanted to not send him his mail. So many children all around the world wrote him letters on a daily basis, and Fred took great pleasure in this. He really enjoyed writing back to all of these kids; he responded to every kid, individually, himself. It was one of his personal values, and he took pride in writing those letters. And he was really adamant with folks that he wanted his mail, and he wanted to be able to write his letters. And the last letter he wrote the day that he died was to a kid. I think that’s, for me, the ultimate engagement, when you’re so passionate about your work that you want to do it all the time. And if it’s your last day, that’s what you want to do. I think if you’ve got that perspective about work, then work is something that you enjoy doing. So if there’s one message to take away from our book is that we want people to feel that sense of engagement. We think the strategies and tools we provide will help people to feel engaged in their work.

SHY: What is something you do every day that you wish everyone else did?

BM: I wish everyone in the world would not send me emails after 10:00PM. So I just came back from a conference on future work and had some time to talk with other executives in a wide variety of industries from all around the world, not just the U.S. Almost universally, everyone says that keeping up with all the communications today can make you feel somewhat depleted. I think that it’s good to set some boundaries about email and digital, mobile, social communications we get. I wish everybody else would do that too, because since they don’t, I always feel behind every morning when I get up.

SHY: So do you stop checking email at a certain point in your day?

BM: I do. I really find that it’s critical to be able to recharge. You have to figure out how much to stretch, but you have to figure out how to protect yourself too. I think that everybody has to set boundaries that work for them. I set one for myself, but you have to set one for yourself given your situation.

SHY: Is there anything that I haven’t asked that you think is important for people to know?

BM: The stretch imperative that it’s on you, you’ve got dreams and you need options in order to really make all that possible. I just want for people that you engage with on your website, to see them be able to open their thinking and be the best that they can be.

Liked this? Check out part 1 of Barbara Mistick’s interview and our review of Stretch!

Written by Diana Kim

If I could pick one person to advise me on how to start my career or steer it towards the right direction, it would be Barbara Mistick. Mistick is the co-author of Stretch: How to Future-Proof Yourself for Tomorrow’s Workplace and the president of Wilson College with over 20 years of experience in the workplace. In our interview, Mistick imparted some of her wisdom on the best ways to get started at any entry-level position and how to grow as a professional.

Disclaimer: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

SHY: How can college students use Stretch, and what can they do while still in college to “future-proof” themselves? 

BM: I think one of the best things that college students can do is to take a tip from the book, and try and get as many experiences as they possibly can while they’re in college. What I find as a college president is that students who take full advantage of internships, externships, and experiential learning really get a chance to test out what it would be like to be in a particular career. That knowledge really helps them define and refine what they want to do during their college experience. I can tell you one story about a student who was an education major and didn’t take the opportunity to do internships along the way and then got to student teaching at the end. It’s an entirely different experience to go from just being theoretical about educational process and educational pedagogies to being in the classroom and trying to get a whole class full of middle school or high school students to listen and learn. She discovered when she got into the student teaching part that she really didn’t like it. She had to go back and restart when she’d already invested a lot of time into her college experience. So the best thing you can possibly do is to test out your career earlier instead of waiting until the end of your experience. That way, if you get practical experience and if it is giving you feedback that maybe this is not exactly what I want to be doing for the rest of my life, you get a chance to reset before you’re at the end of your college experience.

SHY: Are some majors better than others?

BM: I would say no. I think the most important thing is for you to be in a major that you feel passionate about, that you really enjoy and that you’re willing to research at great length. I certainly saw that, as Karie and I were writing this book, there were many moments at which it was really important that we were really passionate about this topic, because there’s always one more thing to research, one more thing to read, and another set of interviews to do. So you really have to be committed to whatever field or major you select. To add to that, I am a strong proponent for and strong believer in the importance of liberal arts. You still have a major and functional area in which you’re gathering expertise. But you also take a course of study that encourages you to communicate effectively, to be a great problem solver, be able to innovate and be curious long-term. What I had seen from talking to employers and what I had seen from lots of studies that looked at what students coming out of what institutions are most successful in the workforce today is that many employers (a lot of technology companies in particular) favor graduates that come out of liberal arts colleges, because they know that the functional expertise that you come with is only going to be at that kind of cutting edge for a short period of time. It’s going to be more about your willingness long-term to be a problem solver, to continue learning to communicate effectively and to be innovative – that’s what’s going to really distinguish you in those workplaces that are changing with the times.

SHY: If you could have readers take away one lesson from this book, what would it be?

BM: I think if you were to take away one message, it would be to take away the message that your professional development is on you. It’s on you to take responsibility for your career long-term. What I see is that people who are willing to stretch, who are willing to learn something new each day, that put their hands up and volunteer for new assignments, stay most engaged in their workplace. They can pick up all the tips and strategies that we offer in the book. So I say the number one thing is to feel empowered by the fact that your ability to stay relevant at work is in your hands. You don’t need to rely on your company for that kind of skill enhancement. You can try small things along the way that can make a big difference in your career. So I say that it’s on you.

SHY: This book is addressed to both novices and people who are experienced in their fields. Do you personally practice the advice you give?

BM: Yes. I feel like I’m stretching every single day to learn new things, to try out new experiences. So I feel that I personally practice all of the things that are in the book on a regular basis. And I find it exciting to learn something new every day and certainly being able to go around and talk about the book has given me a chance to talk to a lot of people that are doing different things, which helps me to keep stretching.

SHY: Out of the practices you apply in your personal life, what has been easiest to apply? What is the most challenging?

BM: I say that the easiest to apply for me is continuing to learn. We talk in the book about this whole perspective of earning a living. Many people talk about earning a living. That’s why we go to work and we get paychecks. That’s sort of what work is about. It’s earning a living. But my perspective on this and the perspective we talk about in the book is that it’s really about learning a living. What we meant by that is if you’ve learned new things every day, it expands your skills for the future and makes it possible for you to stay relevant over time. The best way to earn a living is by learning a living. So I think that’s the easiest thing for me. It excites me to learn something new each day. It doesn’t mean I can act on everything I learn, but I can pack away the things that I’m learning, then come back and take a look at them in greater depth when I need to call on those. When I’m in a situation that needs a different strategy, I have those experiences that I can go back to.

On the most difficult side, for me personally, is some of the advice that we’ve given to lots of other people and that we think is the key takeaway from our book, which is this idea of “five to thrive.” We talk a lot about the importance of networks and having a diverse network. And we came up with this strategy that if you have five people who make you feel like a better person, you should take the time to cultivate those five people and build a deeper relationship. That means seeing people on a regular basis and not just having an email conversation back and forth, but actually sitting down and spending some time with them in person. I have found trying to maintain all of those relationships and take the time that we have advocated for people is difficult to do. But I find that when I have that as a priority, then I’m much more likely to make it happen. And the benefit of hanging out with people that are smarter than me is really worth making time for.

SHY: Who is your real-life superhero?

BM: I’ve had a number of those across my career. I had a tremendous college president a number of years ago who I learned a lot from. She was one of my key mentors in life. She had an incredible ability to really manage and lead collaboratively. I learned so much from working with her and having the benefit of her experience. And when I came into this world of education, she was really one of my “five to thrive,” and I was able to sit down with her on a pretty regular basis to talk about the challenges that I was having, being in a new community and new culture. So she was really one of my heroes.

I think on a superhero basis, people that everybody would know, the folks that inspire me the most are those that take a passion for a particular topic and are totally focused on making that a reality. So not too many years ago, there was a woman who started a entire campaign against landmines out of her home and ended up winning the Nobel Peace Prize because of her work. She was able to do that all from her home. I think that is really remarkable. It really shows you the power of having a passion and being able to then work your network and make so many things possible. Her name is Jody Williams. She started this campaign in her living room, but she was able to leverage her passion for the topic and the importance of ridding the world of landmines and get other people to come in. Talk about “five to strive:” she had a list of celebrities and policy makers to really change the world. I think those type of people are my heroes because they leave the world better than they found it.

SHY: What is your real-life superpower?

BM: What I have found most satisfying in my career is to be able to seek an action and then be able to find a way to make those things happen. I think that my superpower is to see what’s possible and then to be able to back up from what’s possible and figure out the right steps to be able to get to what’s possible. So over time, I found that’s the thing I enjoy doing most and that I have a good ability to do – to see the possibilities and see how to get there.

SHY: How would you like to be remembered?

BM: Right now, what I feel really passionate about both for my college and also in terms of writing this book is really about getting people to be engaged at work. If I can encourage a few more people to feel that they’re relevant and that the work they’re doing is important and to feel good about that day in and day out, that would really make me feel great. We wrote in the book about someone who was really a superhero who is no longer with us. Fred Rogers, who I worked with in Pittsburgh for a couple of years, was a television entrepreneur and in many ways a T.V. evangelist. His evangelism was about encouraging children to be engaged and to be curious. And he had such a tremendous impact on children all around the world. It was phenomenal. But the thing about Fred that I remember most, because I worked with him towards the end of his career, was that he stayed engaged in his work until the day he died. It was remarkable to me. So people at work, they absolutely loved Fred. Many of them had worked with him for 15 or 20 years, and they wanted to protect him because they knew he was sick and he needed some time for his family and other things. So they wanted to not send him his mail. So many children all around the world wrote him letters on a daily basis, and Fred took great pleasure in this. He really enjoyed writing back to all of these kids; he responded to every kid, individually, himself. It was one of his personal values, and he took pride in writing those letters. And he was really adamant with folks that he wanted his mail, and he wanted to be able to write his letters. And the last letter he wrote the day that he died was to a kid. I think that’s, for me, the ultimate engagement, when you’re so passionate about your work that you want to do it all the time. And if it’s your last day, that’s what you want to do. I think if you’ve got that perspective about work, then work is something that you enjoy doing. So if there’s one message to take away from our book is that we want people to feel that sense of engagement. We think the strategies and tools we provide will help people to feel engaged in their work.

SHY: What is something you do every day that you wish everyone else did?

BM: I wish everyone in the world would not send me emails after 10:00PM. So I just came back from a conference on future work and had some time to talk with other executives in a wide variety of industries from all around the world, not just the U.S. Almost universally, everyone says that keeping up with all the communications today can make you feel somewhat depleted. I think that it’s good to set some boundaries about email and digital, mobile, social communications we get. I wish everybody else would do that too, because since they don’t, I always feel behind every morning when I get up.

SHY: So do you stop checking email at a certain point in your day?

BM: I do. I really find that it’s critical to be able to recharge. You have to figure out how much to stretch, but you have to figure out how to protect yourself too. I think that everybody has to set boundaries that work for them. I set one for myself, but you have to set one for yourself given your situation.

SHY: Is there anything that I haven’t asked that you think is important for people to know?

BM: The stretch imperative that it’s on you, you’ve got dreams and you need options in order to really make all that possible. I just want for people that you engage with on your website, to see them be able to open their thinking and be the best that they can be.

Liked this? Check out part 1 of Barbara Mistick’s interview and our review of Stretch!

Written by Diana Kim

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