How to Design Your Life for Success

you don’t have
a life plan to guide
you, you will spend
time and energy

Success doesn’t just happen by accident. There are ways to intentionally design it.

Denise Upah Mills has done just that. She is co-founder and chief mindset officer of LeaderFuelNow (LFN), a leadership consulting firm based in Kansas City MO.

When the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletic Administrators (NACWAA) tapped Mills to speak at its 2013 conference, she and the board created a program called Catapult that would teach attendees to get the most from the conference. 

Mills unveiled Catapult at NACWAA in October 2013. WIHE caught up with Mills later to discuss her presentation.

Grow professionally outside the box

She described growing up on an Iowa farm, with few role models to follow. She married a man who had chosen a career in the insurance industry.

“We knew he’d be in the home office for a couple of years, then in the field for a couple of years and then a district office,” she said. “We chose to have a lifestyle where we could easily move.” 

Because of her husband’s career, Mills knew that the frequent moves would make her unemployable, so she decided to start her own business.

Since it usually takes three to five years to grow a business, Mills realized she had to be nimble. “I got good going into a community, looking at the culture and listening to the small business leaders,” she said. In those listening sessions, small business owners would identify a problem. That gave Mills the opportunity to create a new business to solve it.

In the early days of the Internet, she started a Web site business in response to complaints from small business leaders who wanted a Web site, but didn’t have the money, skill or time to create their own. “I literally started a template Web site business,” said Mills.

She sold 6,000 Web sites in a month. “All of the Web sites had three screens and were the same, but business owners could change the color and upload pictures to customize them,” she said. “They all had plug-ins for shopping carts.”

When the Web sites took a long time to load because of the photos, Mills started another company hanging antennas to improve the downloading speed. She eventually sold the antenna company to a telecom who wanted to enter the business. That initial Web business was sold in nine separate pieces.

“Everything happened because I listened while everyone else was complaining about the problems,” she said.

Today owns three different businesses—although LeaderFuelNow is her primary one—and invests in others.

LFN got its start through a mentoring relationship Mills had with Lou Tice, founder of the Seattle WA-based Pacific Institute. Tice believed that using the principles of cognitive psychology, people can grow personally and professionally by learning to think outside of the box.

“I was a naïve Iowa farm girl,” said Mills. “He taught me the principles of what would become Catapult.” LeaderFuelNow is her way of passing along the lessons she learned as a project director with the Institute.

“I didn’t know that I’m as strategic a thinker as I am,” she said. “Lou taught me that I talk myself out of things; that I have greater potential.”

He also taught Mills to dream, telling her that even if she failed, she would have learned skills that would serve her well in her next venture.

Craft a life plan

The secret to success in one’s career is having a life plan. If you don’t have one, you will spend time and energy wandering, said Mills.

She illustrated the concept by having NACWAA members write the letter V on a piece of paper. Three inches below that, she instructed them to write the letters CR. V stands for vision; CR stands for current reality.

Participants were asked to draw a line between the two sets of letters. “The clearer the vision, the straighter, the line, the more direct the path,” she said. 

For example, if you want to be healthy, but haven’t defined what “healthy” is, you will wander off one way by eating a doughnut but overcorrect yourself when you realize your cholesterol has shot up by skipping meals. Neither behavior will get you to your goal.

To develop a life plan around your health, start by defining your view of being healthy. Describe everything in that view. This could include something as simple as having only one soda a week.

Create a picture in your mind of what your ideal of “healthy” is. By having that picture in your consciousness, you’re naturally drawn to the concept.

Visualize the future and do it

When Mills works with women, she asks them to visualize where they see themselves professionally and how long they think it will take them to get there. Most report it will take five to seven years for them to achieve their next goal. Men answer, “I should be there next year.”

Why the dichotomy? Women come up with excuses, such as the firm not allowing part-time work or supporting a balanced life.

“Who told you that the firm won’t allow you to have children and work part-time and get promoted along the way?” said Mills. Professional women who work part-time have figured out a way to make it work, rather than talking themselves out of the job.

The same gender dichotomy applies for jobs. Women feel they must have nine out of 10 criteria before sending in their resume. Men feel that having three of 10 criteria is close enough, assuming that they’ll learn the rest along the way.

Women’s resumes sport telltale signs of selling themselves short. We are more likely to have the words “facilitated,” “supported” as descriptors, evidence of having been in support roles. 

Men are more direct. They use the words “led, accomplished, directed and did” in describing their roles. 

It’s no different in higher education. Academic women don’t go after their next position. They wait until someone taps them on the shoulder and encourages them to take the next step.

Conference comfort zone

Catapult, the program that Mills spoke about at NACWAA, was designed to “catapult” individuals into experiencing success at a conference. The idea grew out of conversations about women’s needs and intentions. 

Catapult gets women thinking early in the conference, so that early on they can ask the questions they should be asking, in order to get the results they want from being there. “If they don’t think about it when they come in, they won’t network from day one,” said Mills.

Some of the questions include: How do I make connections with someone who is at the level where I want to be? What would make this the best conference ever? How do I market myself for success?

Catapult also focuses on communication patterns. When asked what you do, how many times do you just give the inquirer your title? This tells nothing about you.

Is your standard response to being asked “What’s new?” a succinct “Not much?” If you change your conversation patterns, you’ll get a better result.

Catapult operates on the premise of “success by design.” Women must design and choose success instead of waiting to become “accidentally successful.” People don’t plan to fail, they simply fail to plan.

Why I’m Here

Since hearing concrete examples is better than just hearing the abstract info, NACWAA participants filled out a sheet labeled, “Why I’m Here” by describing “What would make the conference the best it could be for me?”

In the “I’m” section of the headline, they listed what they had to offer that could benefit others. “Even if you’re new to your job, you bring a fresh perspective that those who’ve been in the job awhile don’t have,” said Mills.

Under the word “Here,” participants listed what information they wanted to find out. If you want to work in Division 1 football where women are scarce, how do you find someone who knows someone who is working in your ideal field?

Statistically, if you ask eight random people for what you need or want, one will have the answer or the connection, said Mills. But women don’t ask. Catapult tries to change that. 

Be purposeful

With our busy schedules that run us from meeting to
meeting to meeting, busyness seems to be the new sign
of success. If we give ourselves permission to pause, to be purposeful, what we could accomplish would increase exponentially.

Often our habits throw up roadblocks to progress. Mills’ favorite word is “purposeful,” and she offered three steps to achieving that progress.

The first step is to become self-aware. Recognize that what you’re doing is actually part of a pattern.

Insight comes next. Look at what this is affecting. How do you want it to be?

Take action toward those choices. Until you know how you want it to be, you’ll continue to wander.

Santovec, Mary Lou. (2014, February). How to Design Your Life for Success. Women in Higher Education, 23(2), 18-19. 

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