Melanie Whelan, CEO of SoulCycle.
Courtesy of SoulCycle.
By Melanie Whelan
May 15, 2018

Looking back on my career so far, it feels like the ride of a lifetime. As the CEO of SoulCycle, I mean that both literally (I’m often on a bike, riding in our studios every day), but also figuratively. When I started college I was an engineering major, and by the time I graduated I had pivoted my concentration along with my life plan.

In my sophomore year in college, I had this epiphany while sitting on the floor of my dorm room, trying to design a wind turbine for class. Up until that night, my plan had been to study engineering then architecture and build my own practice. That evening, I realized that my passion wasn’t in wind turbines, engineering or architecture at all. So at 20, I abandoned my original ideas of what my life would look like and started from scratch.

Though I didn’t have a plan at that moment, I did have interests and instincts, and following them has helped me at every point in my career. While it wasn’t all smooth sailing from day one, those qualities helped me foster a sense of gratitude and perseverance throughout my career, which has led me from Starwood Hotels to the founding team of Virgin America, and most recently, from the VP of business development at Equinox fitness clubs to the team at SoulCycle. While I couldn’t have anticipated that trajectory, here’s what I would tell myself as an uncertain young woman just starting out:

IGNORE THE “SHOULDS”

When asked for advice, I hear a lot of “shoulds.” “I should be a banker.” “I should go to law school.” “I should pursue what I studied in school.” I understand that impulse because my college peers also chose pretty linear and mappable career paths. Instead, I took a different path and worked on the corporate development team at Starwood Hotels right out of college. None of my friends understood my choice, but before graduating, I stopped thinking externally and began surveying myself internally: I assessed my interests and knew that an entrepreneurial first step, albeit within the framework of a larger company, would ensure I was constantly learning and engaged in my first job out of college.

KEEP YOUR HEAD DOWN AND KEEP LEARNING

The most important questions you can ask yourself in any job are: Am I learning? Am I interacting with people and projects that push me? Am I moving beyond my own edges and getting out of my depths? Looking back, I grew the most when I learned the most, when I was in over my head or asked to do an assignment outside of my daily responsibilities, and many times, my existing skill set. That’s what led me to SoulCycle: I started helping out at the small startup after Equinox acquired a majority stake, even though that technically wasn’t in my job description.

In that same spirit, don’t get so fixated on a role or a title or a promotion. Instead really think about the meaning of your work, what kind of impact you’re having and the growth you’re experiencing above all else.

DON’T EXPECT ANYTHING

Don’t think about what you want, think about what you can contribute — to everyone, regardless of their title — and invest in others every day. Make time for lunch or coffee even when you’re busy. You never know where those relationships will lead — be it in partnerships, negotiations or your personal life. One huge reason I’m here today is because I was lucky enough to meet a woman who needed an analyst on her corporate development team at Virgin. A mutual friend connected us, and when we met, I focused on her story and her needs instead of searching for ways she could help me. After our first conversation, I eventually explained to her how I could help her role and team. Just remember, good stuff comes from reaching out and making time without an agenda.

ALWAYS BE PRESENT

Think long-term, but try not to get too focused on what’s next. Be present in your present and make the most of where you are. Every day, look for ways to pitch in and impact your team, or bring your creative thinking to the day-to-day needs of your job. Beyond work, it’s so important to apply this in your personal life, and to be present for your family and friends.

Personally, I make breakfast with my kids on weekends and implement strict no-phone policies during meals. I prioritize and respect that time to recharge outside of the office, all while immersing myself in my children’s lives. Because we’re all so time-starved, it’s critical to make the time you have with friends and family really count.

ASK FOR FEEDBACK OFTEN, AND EARLY

Make feedback a constant conversation throughout your career and make it contextual. After delivering a project, for example, it’s always good advice to ask: How did the project go? Do you have any feedback for me? How could this have gone better? What went well that we can acknowledge and continue? I think having that ongoing check-in during real-time moments, instead of some yearly grand reveal, is helpful in any position.

Finding success means finding happiness for you, and that means living and growing, sometimes failing and deciding what rings true for you. Still, for anyone who feels as lost as I did in that moment of clarity with my wind turbine, my lasting piece of advice is to learn to trust. Trust that your experience and instincts will guide you through uncertain moments to exactly who and where you’re supposed to be.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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