Lesson Plans: What All Women Over 40 Should Know, and Why We All Should Always Be Learning

“I am learning all the time. The tombstone will be my diploma.”
– Eartha Kitt, 1927-2008

Having just enjoyed another birthday, I am still amazed at how much I still have to learn – despite my many beneficial experiences and expertise – that I feel I should have learned at a much younger age. Most women over 40 feel this way, I know.

          Photo by Petr Kratochvil

Photo by Petr Kratochvil

Because of my experiences, and continued passion for adding to my expertise, I also have a passion for mentoring, teaching and counseling others – especially college students – so they develop a zeal for a lifetime of learning. Of course, none of us learns the same way, nor do we want to learn for the same reasons. For example, I learned about leadership by becoming extremely open to learning from all sorts of people in some very uncomfortable situations. I now look at those learning situations as essential to my professional and spiritual development, much like new physical exercises are essential to my health as I get older.

The sad stories about celebrity cooking stars Paula Deen and Nigella Lawson are evidence that all of us should always be learning.
It seems the only thing these two dynamic women have in common is nurturing others through their cooking. That was before recent events in their personal lives made them fodder for tabloid headlines and constant speculation about their careers going forward.

As a marketer, college educator and consultant specializing in leaders over 40, I am commenting in a respectful way about the Deen and Lawson situations. In fact, three very important lessons about life, business and professional responsibility I learned at a very young age from my Italian parents. They are pertinent to anyone who’s interested in the mission of “always be learning.”

#1: Be respectful to everyone, even when you think others aren’t watching, because it’s the right thing to do and because there’s always someone watching. Women (and men!) over 40 in presumed leadership positions often make the gravest mistakes in exhibiting rude behavior towards individuals they think are “beneath” them. Not only is this unprofessional and unbecoming in a leader, it can be deleterious to your career in general. The very individuals to whom you might have been insensitive could in turn complain behind your back to your most important client, or to your boss, or to a prospective employer. Even if no one turns your story into a version of Nanny Diaries or Devil Wears Prada, what mature executive can afford bad references!

#2: Be wary of making derisive comments – ever – about religion, sexual orientation, and ethnic background. What might seem innocuous, or so-called conventional wisdom, or “playing along to get along” in a group not only hurts others, but could hurt you most when you least expect it, for instance, at what should be the zenith of your career. Enter – and exit (at least for the time being) – Paula Deen. Fair or unfair, who could have imagined that a woman who was perceived to be so sweet, cheery, positive and fun would be in this kind of predicament at this point in her life?

piggy bank#3: Earn, invest in and have easy access to your own “Forget You!” assets. I was nine when my very wise father advised me that romantic partners, business associates, bosses, friends and others on whom I might depend or trust for financial support were, in fact, not to be depended on or trusted as my primary means of financial support. Even after 31 years of fulfilling marriage to a devoted and exceedingly decent man, I haven’t forgotten my father’s advice.

Nigella Lawson may not have as many assets as her husband, Charles Saatchi – the ad legend, art enthusiast and rumored throat-throttler – but she does have enough “Forget You” money. Stories, with photos of her moving out of their home with her children in tow, report that she’s “mortified” by all the publicity. I can’t help but recall the vignettes at the end of many early Nigella Bites episodes that showed her in a revealing nightgown blissfully tip-toeing out of bed in the middle of the night to chomp lustily on a lamb chop or slurp down an éclair, perhaps following an equally lusty romantic encounter with hubby. Now it’s almost as if Lawson is being punished for being the sultry, lusty, gorging Nigella “brand” Saatchi wanted in the first place!

Paula Deen’s alleged racist comments and condoning of a hostile sexist environment are also a very sad coda indeed. Especially in light of her early struggles as a single mother raising young sons, battling agoraphobia and subsequently cooking up her multi-million dollar enterprise from scratch. Now she’s another fallen celebrity, vilified and excoriated by past actions.

Since I’ve spent my entire career marketing corporate brands and services, I don’t purport to be a novice let alone an apologist for anyone’s insensitive behavior or personal troubles. Even when it concerns notable women over 40 who I respect, but especially when it concerns celebrities who earn millions of dollars – as brands!

Be that as it may, few normal folk have to manage their lives under the constant scrutiny of the public eye. As a marketer, I know from experience that the hardest brands to manage and market are those associated with celebrity spokespersons. When the person is the brand, it’s nearly impossible to predict what might happen to the brand’s equity when the brand exhibits evidence of being a living, learning human being.

As Deen, Lawson, and countless other women over 40 have realized, our lives are full of lesson plans. Whether they’re proactive plans, to optimize our strengths and minimize our weaknesses in good times, or they’re reactive, to mitigate crises and help us take advantage of opportunities, is governed by our willingness to always be learning. For my own coda, I hope I’m as lucky as Eartha Kitt – learning all the time, until the very last diploma.