Whoever said you’re not supposed to be happy every day should talk to Bozoma Saint John.
“Clearly, I have ambition. I want big things in my life,” says Saint John, a Hall of Fame marketer with a resume that spans executive roles at Netflix, Apple Music and Uber. Dressed fabulously in an off-the-shoulder top and bold earrings for this interview, she cracks jokes and seems uninhibitedly energetic. “But I also want to be satisfied in this moment,” she continues. “I don’t believe in the gratification that will come in 10 years, or 12 years or 20 years. I want the joy I’m supposed to experience in this life right now, and I’m completely unapologetic about that.”
How Bozoma Saint John seizes the day
This seize-the-day attitude was hard-won, born out of a series of heartbreaking losses—a college boyfriend from suicide, a child born prematurely to pre-eclampsia and a husband to cancer, which Saint John recounts in The Urgent Life: My Story of Love, Loss, and Survival
The “urgent life,” Saint John explains, is about tossing aside the clutter and remaining focused in the ongoing search for both satisfaction and happiness in life, regardless of the trauma and loss we may face. “Happiness is not frivolous to me,” Saint John states. “If I’m not happy, then it’s not worth it. People say things like, ‘You can’t be happy all the time.’ Why? Who said that? Who told you that you’re not allowed to be happy all the time? I am going to chase it.”
In college, Saint John’s plan was to go to medical school, but she discovered it wasn’t where her passion lay. She stumbled upon marketing, where she found that she could use her innate ability to relate to others through pop culture—a skill she’d honed from moving to new cities and countries throughout her childhood.
“I think there are some very lucky and probably very smart people who chose their path, in school or what have you, and then keep doing that for the rest of their lives,” Saint John laughs. “The majority of us don’t do that. You kind of find your way, sometimes, by experimentation, failure. All of these things are actually what make you into who you are. That’s certainly been the case for me.”
Find your freedom and achieve success
Early in her career, Saint John was intently focused on winning. Success back then looked like the corner office. Today, she sees things differently. “Right now, success to me looks like freedom,” Saint John says. “Freedom to be where I want to be, when I want to be there. And to leave when I don’t. That’s success to me.”
It’s a beautiful concept. But how can the rest of us—aspiring leaders, purpose-driven individuals, entrepreneurs hoping to grow—reach that level of freedom?
Saint John recommends the following.
1. Understand Your Priorities.
First, closely examine how you spend your time. What do you dream of doing, and are you taking steps to get there? Or is your energy going toward what others want for you instead?
“We have the responsibility,” Saint John says, to better understand what it is we want for our own lives, and then be able to articulate that honestly.
It can be a difficult thing to admit, particularly when you find yourself walking in the exact opposite direction of the path you’d like to be on. It takes courage to acknowledge, even to yourself, that you want something you don’t currently have—or that you want out of something you may have committed weeks, months, even years to. But Saint John urges: Don’t let yourself get distracted from the point.
“My advice is that you are urgently intent on that goal, and that you’re taking the steps to get there by any means necessary. And don’t apologize for being fiercely loyal to that idea,” Saint John says. “If you understand yourself and understand what it is you want, you’ll be much happier. Even if you fail, you’ll be happier.”
2. Trust Your Intuition.
Saint John treats her intuition like a muscle: If you don’t exercise it, and often, she says, that voice becomes too weak and atrophies. Over the years, she’s strengthened her intuition so much she says it nearly shouts at her when she’s presented with a new business opportunity or on a first date.
Part of her journey to build her intuition was to practice actually listening to it and following its direction. “[Now,] I trust myself because I’ve practiced it,” Saint John says. “If you can build that trust with yourself, which… is the most important relationship that you can have, your intuition will come to you, and it will be true.”
For anyone who doesn’t listen closely to theirs, she suggests making a list of your pros and cons, without asking for anyone else’s opinion. “It’s a good way to start to value your own opinion,” she explains.
Read your list quietly to yourself and reflect on it. How do you really feel? (Be honest!) Did you start to favor one side, or find ways to make a con a pro?
3. Put Yourself First.
Throughout her career, Saint John has been vocal about not waiting on anyone else’s timeline and has demonstrated that she’s willing to trust her own decisions despite the sometimes loud opinions of those around her.
She spent about one year as the first chief brand officer at Uber before accepting a position as chief marketing officer at Endeavor, a global leader in entertainment, in 2018. “It was such an uphill battle,” she says of her time at Uber. “The way that the company was structured wouldn’t allow me to have the help that I needed in order to do the job. I knew… I could have all the brilliance in the world, but I probably wouldn’t be able to accomplish the goals that I wanted to…. I didn’t want to burn myself out at a place where I didn’t know if I would ever really achieve the things I wanted. And so, in order to save myself, I left.”
She makes it sound easy. But Saint John recognized fairly quickly that the job at Uber was not designed for her to succeed and, therefore, was not right for her.
“It’s been such a lie, [taught to us] by society, by our parents, by teachers, by so many people, that humility looks like serving everyone else in the world but yourself,” Saint John says. “[That] does not earn you a good life. Your good life is earned because you were true to the things that you wanted to do. You are being honest with how you want to be in the world.”
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photo courtesy of Bozoma Saint John.
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