You Can Turn No Into Yes and Other Lessons Learned

by Ellen Galinsky

Being asked to give a speech about lessons learned in life is daunting; every day, you accrue new ones. That said, here is a list of life lessons I’ve learned as of May 2012:

1. Dare to Dream

I am often asked how my career began. My first real job was as an assistant teacher at the Bank Street School for Children. And I got that job because I dared to dream. As college was ending, I looked far and wide for what I wanted to do next. Like all soon to be college graduates, this is scary. One feels, rightly or wrongly, that the first steps you take into a career begin to set you on a path for life.

That uncertainty faded when I attended a conference at Bank Street. I wanted to work there so much that I dreamed of doing so, even if I had to work as a waitress somewhere else and volunteer at first. What impressed me was that the speakers at the conference presented themselves as ongoing learners about children and education, not as know-it-alls. They were very well-known professionals, yet they were as excited, as curious, as enthusiastic about continuing to learn as I was.

So I got dressed up in my only suit (a blue, white and red Chanel look-alike), took the train down from Poughkeepsie to New York City and went for an interview. Later, I was told that the reason I was offered the job was that I got right down on the floor with the kids, even though I was wearing my best — and only — suit.

I dared to dream then and I’ve found that once you do, it can become a habit. Which leads me to my second life lesson…

2. You Can Turn No Into Yes If You Work Hard At It

When my first child was born, I had all of the terrible experiences in trying to find good child care that parents today still have. So I decided to try to begin an early education program where I worked.

Decision makers in the 1970s did NOT think that having a child care program for infants and toddlers was a good idea, to put it mildly. I was asked: “Are we REALLY sure that infant and toddler child care doesn’t harm babies’ brains?” — a terrifying question.

I was going to work after having children. Like other parents, we were going to use child care — so what makes child care good for babies’ brains?

With funding from the Ford Foundation, Bill Hooks and I set out on a journey to find the best child care in the country and to document what made it great. That journey became our book, The New Extended Family — Day Care that Works. And those lessons learned led to founding the Family Center in 1974. My daughter was the very first child to enroll.

No became yes because we worked very hard, we were persistent and we did the research to make it happen!

3. Fear Means Go

When I begin a book, I am often afraid. I have what I think of as “expert-titis” — Why am I qualified to take on this topic? Why should I be the one to write this book — likeThe Six Stage of Parenthood? Over time, I have learned put my fear at bay, just keep writing and follow my questions.

4. Follow Your Questions

In the way that rock climbing or exploring new lands or flying are adventures, my work feels like an adventure to me. Rather than scaling the highest peaks or seeking a new land, I have followed questions:

  • Questions that I think matter;
  • Questions that I think will help me if I find an answer; and
  • Questions that I think will help others if I find an answer.

In listening to the hundreds of parents I interviewed for The New Extended Familyand for The Six Stages of Parenthood in the 1970s, I heard many talk about their struggles to manage work and family life. Yet each thought she or he was the “only one.” that saw this as a personal problem.

But if you add up all of these personal problems, we have a societal problem. It was a problem in that era with no name and little known about it.

Those of us interested in knowing more began to meet each other, formed groups and began to do studies. That was the beginning of the field of work and family life and the origins of my co-founding the Families and Work Institute in 1989. And that leads to the fifth lesson.

5. Don’t Assume You Know — Go to the Source

One of the things that asking questions quickly reveals is never to assume you know. If you go to the source, if you ask — you might find that what you think you know isn’t correct.

That became the basis of my Ask the Children books. For example, a nationally representative study of children in the fifth through the twelfth grades asked: “If you had one wish to change the way your mother’s or your father’s work affects your life, what would that wish be?”

The study also asked a nationally representative group of parents with children to guess what their children would wish and the majority of the parents guessed that their children would wish for more time together.

But that isn’t what the largest proportion of children wished. If they only had ONE wish, the largest proportion of children wished that their parents would be less tired and less stressed! That finding continues to make a big difference in the lives of parents. And that leads to my sixth lesson.

6. Do Your Personal Best

If I was going to teach children, if I was going to do research and write books and reports that affect business leaders, policy makers and families, I had to do work of the very highest quality.

I had to exceed expectations. I had to always do my personal best. And that leads to my last, my seventh lesson.

7. Live to learn and learn to live

I will always be drawn to learning communities. So let me close with what my grandson said on his first day of school at the Bank Street School, where I began my career. He was in the fifth grade.

When I asked him about his first day, he said, “You know, at other schools, if kids make mistakes, the teachers would yell at them. Here,” he continued, “the kids LOVE to come to school.”

In just one short day, he had picked up a key point of the philosophy that has always meant everything to me: Live to learn and learn to live.