Nina Semczuk
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“What permission are you going to give yourself to try something new?”

Beth Comstock, former vice chair of GE and author of the new book Imagine It Forward, recently shared her advice for getting ahead, staying ahead, and keeping a future-focused mindset.

"Give yourself permission," Comstock said during her speech that kicked off the ANA Business Marketing NYC 2018 Regional Conference on Sept. 28, gesturing to a pink permission slip displayed on the projection screen. “Change happens when you give yourself permission to imagine a better future, and then you make it happen.”

The theme of permission permeates Comstock's mission for each and every one of us to make change part of our job. But change isn’t easy for most of us, especially those of us who are marginalized by race or gender, or those of us still in the early stages of our careers. Fortunately for us, though, Comstock is an example of what happens when you work through your perceived limitations. A lifelong introvert, Comstock shared a story (also found in the first chapter of Imagine It Forward) about when she was 30 and working in public relations for media giant Ted Turner. "I was such a wallflower. I had worked there for over a year and Ted didn't even know my name," she said. During an event at the UN, she resolved to finally make a move and introduce herself. She waited for Turner outside of the men's room when she saw she’d have a chance to catch a moment of his time — but she barely got anything out before he interrupted her, shook her hand with his dripping wet one, and walked away, zipping up his fly. Comstock vowed then and there to make a change. She said, “I would overcome the obstacle of being an introvert in an extroverted world.”

That lesson, and Comstock’s subsequent transformation into a woman who works hard to give herself permission, helped her on her path to success. Comstock is now proud to call herself a changemaker, who, in her words, is “someone who goes head first and doesn’t know answers.” Instead of waiting around, she said, you have to give yourself the courage to chart your own path.

On Gatekeepers

Moving through your career, you'll always find the people who say no, who turn you down, and who block progress, Comstock says. Her advice is to “learn to be relentless.” To illustrate her point, she shared a story, also found in chapter one of her book, where she pitched an idea for a new initiative while working for Bob Wright, who was head of communications at NBC at the time. He said no, but for nine months she persisted. She kept pitching him, and said, "When I hear no, it’s an invitation to keep going. It means not yet.” In the end, he approved her idea, and told her, "You made it so darn hard to say no.”

On the Future

One of leading ways to become a changemaker is to authorize yourself to act on your imagination, Comstock stated. “You have to be able to imagine this new world. And give yourself permission.”

On Advice to Her Younger Self

Pulling up a slide of her 30-year-old headshot, Comstock asked herself, “What would I tell her now that would help her then?” Continuing the theme of giving permission—even permission to not succeed—she answered, “you’re going to fail, but you’ll learn. It will open a new path and you will find success.” Comstock continued, “You know what? I survived, and even thrived.”

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