A Summary of One Woman’s Continuing Path To Success and Happiness

Kirsten Gillibrand is the democratic senator from New York. She has written a book about her experiences as a woman rising through the ranks of the professional world, as an attorney, and then into the realm of national politics – both male-centric worlds.


Her road to success was neither short nor easy. She stumbled repeatedly, fought bureaucracy, boy’s clubs and multiple glass ceilings. But she found strength from many sources – her family, friends – and the very things that made her a whole, happy person and a devoted wife and mother also built the base for her continued professional success.


She shares her story and considers some general insights in her book, in the hope that women who are looking for inspiration may find some possible paths to success and whole-life fulfillment in its pages.


“If you’re like me,” she begins, “you’re reading this book because you want to find out how to get to where you want to be in your own life by learning how someone else got where they wanted to be in theirs. I keep stacks of books next to my nightstand by and about female leaders, and always I have one question: “How’d she do it?” Too often I don’t find useful answers, and I close the book, annoyed. I wish I could offer you the perfect parable on how to get from A to B. But I can’t. So this is my idiosyncratic story of growing up and building the life I wanted, along with a few lessons I hope someone can use.”


Senator Gillibrand first drew inspiration as so many of us do – from her mother.


“My mother took her criminal-law exam two days after giving birth to my older brother, Douglas. A year and a half later, she stood for her New York Bar character exam three days before she gave birth to me.”


“She built her law practice alongside her family not out of ideology but because she never considered doing otherwise. She wanted a career and she wanted to be a hands-on, present mom, and she made it work.”


“As a girl, I wanted to be just like my mother: smart, self-sufficient, in control.”


And as we all learn, sometimes multiple times in our lives, these lessons never lead to automatic success. Failure is inevitable, and it’s important to embrace it as part of the growing experience, as part of a full and successful life.


“Don’t be afraid to fail. Failure is instructive and necessary. Winning is great, but quitting is how you really lose.”


And she reminds us of this critical insight: Learn from anyone around you who is more experienced than you and is willing to teach you. It is essential to build a support system to help you on your way.


“…you need more than a mentor. You need a sponsor. The difference between the two is crucial.”


“Mentors advise; sponsors act. Mentors give; sponsors invest.”


“Sponsors expect something back. They invest their clout and political capital in you, and in return they demand that their protégés be loyal and perform. The sponsor relationship is transactional, not emotional. Sponsors succeed when you succeed, and they lose when you lose. They can make a vast difference in a career.”


And when managing the combination of a professional and personal life, even though things may look under control on the outside, they are seldom that simple or orderly in real life.


“My own life, while tidy on the surface, was a bit of a mess underneath…. (when I was younger) Some of the men I dated undermined my sense of self-worth, convincing me that I wasn’t smart, attractive, or interesting enough. One even became hostile and controlling. I needed to find a way out, which proved harder for me than I expected.”


Some of the strength she needed to do this came in the form of getting back in touch with her long-time friends, and her faith. She began attending a weekly bible study at a congregation that was far more progressive than the traditional religion she was raised on. She found it more comfortable for her belief system at the time, and she grew to enjoy it. It gave her the strength she needed at the time in her personal life, and she was able to use this newfound strength to springboard into all aspects of her life.


She started to join fund raising groups, first through this church. She loved the idea of creating change for a cause she believed in.


“Until that point in my adult life, I had never said, even to myself, “Politics is important to me.” Now I did, and it was one of those great young-adult epiphanies, an exhilarating moment of clarity when you stop traipsing down the path you’re following and discover the one you really want to be on. I didn’t run for Congress for ten more years. But that was the first step in defining where my life would go.”


And for her, the definition of success changed over time.


There has been such a strong push in recent decades that women can ‘have it all’. This puts a tremendous amount of pressure on women who want to succeed – who want to have a family, to be a great mom, and to use their intelligence, work ethic and internal strength to make their lives better and the world around them better.


“Recently in America, we’ve fallen into a never-ending debate about whether women can “have it all.” It’s an absurd frame for many reasons. “


“The first: For almost all mothers, earning money is a necessity, not a choice. Women work to provide for themselves and their children. We need to stop pretending that work is optional for all but the most financially secure American women.”


“Second: The word “have” in that phrase drives me crazy. It sounds like women are being greedy, trying to finagle more than their fair share, more than they’re due. This is preposterous. Wanting or needing to have a job and a family is not like wanting a second slice of pie. Work and family are both basic tenets of our society. Every government should celebrate and protect both for all of its citizens. That we have come to a place where women seeking work and family can be seen as overreaching, even selfish, is inane.”


“Last: I hate the phrase “having it all,” because it demeans women who do stay home with their children, by implying that their lives are less than full. One of the main goals of the feminist movement is that all women should be able to make the best choices for themselves and their families, and no one should be belittled, degraded, or disregarded because of what she chooses to do. Women’s work needs to be valued fairly, by everybody, wherever it takes place.”


“It frustrates me how many people automatically assume the worst about ambitious women. You must be cold. You must be calculating. You must be arrogant and man-hating. This is a significant issue for women in politics. Too few people believe that you can be ambitious, feminine, and a decent person at the same time.”


“Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Do what you feel in your heart to be right—for you’ll be criticized anyway.”


And for so many women, how they look, how they feel about their bodies, plays such an important role in how they feel about their potential in our society.


“Eating right and maintaining a healthy weight are nearly universal struggles for Americans. I wanted to connect with people, not hold myself apart. Why not tell my story?”


“Appearance and how much to think about it is a never-ending question in most women’s minds. I haven’t put it to rest myself, not by a long shot. But I’ve learned that how I look and feel is important to me, for reasons beyond health and vanity. It may sound clichéd, but it’s true: If I look and feel good, I’m more positive and more confident. If I’m confident, people are more likely to listen to me. If more people are listening, I have more power to fight effectively for what I believe in.”


And she is so often inspired by those around her, especially those who are forced to endure the gravest of circumstances. She was almost overwhelmed, but ultimately amazed when she met survivors of Hurricane Sandy. And watching her friend and colleague Gabbie Giffords endure the shooting that left eight people dead, including a nine year old girl, and left Congresswoman Giffords struggling to recover and rehabilitate, was so devastating, and ultimately so inspiring.


“Sometimes in life you get a sense of meaning and mission from chasing your dreams; other times, the meaning and mission find you. A problem surfaces, a need appears, and whether you intended it or not, you happen to be the right person in the right place and at the right time to lead the fight. Undoubtedly, you had other plans: a soccer team you wanted to coach, a used-book drive you wanted to start, or a half marathon you wanted to train for. But it’s important to stop and listen when something of real consequence inserts itself into your life, tugs on your conscience, and won’t let go.”


But sometimes it can feel like life is pulling us in too many directions all at once.


“Whenever my life feels out of my control or when I question whether I’ve chosen the right way, faith offers me deeper meaning and guideposts.”


“(Esther 4:14, New International Version): “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance… will arise from another place…. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for a time such as this?”


“Those last six words—“for a time such as this”—resonate with me to my core. I believe that in certain situations, we each have a moral responsibility to act. We all have unique opportunities that derive from our unique circumstances, and we have a duty to take them.”


And she concludes:


“How can you get off the sidelines in your own life? Here are just a few ideas to think about. Start with yourself: Wake up thirty minutes earlier in the morning and go for a walk or jog so you can face the day from a stronger, healthier, happier place. Practice compassion with yourself and others. In your community, volunteer to feed families in need at your church. Visit someone who is lonely. Plant trees or a community garden to teach your kids about sustainability. At work, sponsor a talented young woman. Donate business clothes you no longer wear to Dress for Success, a great organization that gives clothes and other professional-development assistance to women who need a boost jump-starting their careers. At home, snuggle up next to your daughter and learn to how to program through the zombie games on code.org. Give your niece a mini-microscope for her birthday. Teach your boys that girls are smart and valuable, even if they find them curious. Above all, protect your children’s most daring childhood dreams.”




Excerpts From: Kirsten Gillibrand & Hillary Clinton. “Off the Sidelines.” iBooks.


Click Here to Purchase Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s Book


Quotes in this article from the book are owned as follows:


“Copyright © 2014 by Kirsten Gillibrand

Foreword copyright © 2014 by Hillary Rodham Clinton


All rights reserved.


Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.


BALLANTINE and the HOUSE colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.”