The most successful people in business often seem superhuman, but even the highest achievers got their start somewhere.
"What I hope you learn here is that everyone who is successful started out just like you,” said Debbie Storey, a former executive vice president of AT&T and author of Don’t Downsize Your Dreams: Leadership Inspiration for Women.
Storey was the closing moderator at the second annual Terry Women’s Initiative Student Conference. She shared the stage April 6 with UGA senior Rachel Zilinskas, a former captain of the swim team and six-time All American. Zilinskas talked about her drive to perform at the highest levels of competitive swimming while maintaining focus on her academic goals in the Honors Program.
“Figure out what’s non-negotiable to you, that’s first. Then figure out what’s essential to you, that’s next. Everything else is a bonus,” Zilinskas said. “For me, there are constants that are non-negotiables. Those were largely swimming and academics, and as I’ve gotten older, my personal health needs to be in that category.
“I write out what is in those non-negotiables and essential categories, and that helps me reflect on my values. That’s something I learned in the Leonard Leadership Scholars Program,” Zilinskas said. “I think I always knew my personal values, but I didn’t say them out loud or write them down, and it’s hard to live a life around your values if you can’t say them out loud.”
Zilinskas’ swimming career was beset by adversity. Recruited by Head Swimming and Diving Coach Jack Bauerle, she suffered a rotator cuff injury that grounded her Olympic hopes and nearly took her out of the pool for good. But her dedication kept her afloat and provided her with the blueprint to face similar obstacles in her academic career.
“I was lucky that I found a passion when I was 6. I’m a retired athlete now, but I still hop in the pool all the time because it’s something I love to do. As for other passions, it’s about finding them,” she said. “I read this great book, Let Your Life Speak. I got it from [Dean of Students] Bill McDonald. It’s all about learning how to listen to yourself, learning that when you go into a situation you need to listen to what you’re telling yourself about that experience.”
“As a freshman, I didn’t know what to major in. I made the decision to major in risk management, then get an Actuarial Science Certificate. But it was based off what an advisor told me I’d be good at and not what I was thinking. It wasn’t that I didn’t like my actuarial science classes– I liked them– but I wasn’t telling myself anything about them. As I learned about the healthcare industry through one of my classes, my life started screaming at me. That’s what I wanted to do. The paths we lay out for ourselves can suppress that voice inside of us.”
Zilinskas holds top 10 times in four swimming events at UGA and was awarded a prestigious NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship. Following graduation, she plans to pursue a PhD in biostatistics with the intent to focus on medical and environmental research.
Her example should be a beacon to others, Storey said.
“Successful people persevere through failure. They learn from it. They get stronger and they keep going on,” she said. “I hope you all leave with that in mind. There’s a saying that if you can see it, you can be it. You’ve seen it, and you can be it.”