Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME
March 30, 2016 8:00 AM EDT

I was 16 when I heard through the grapevine that I had ruined my life. (My best friend delivered the message, which had apparently originated with another friend’s mother.)

I was a pregnant teenager, yes, but I was still struck by the perverse joy this mother clearly took in seeing what she perceived as the social demise of a popular, straight-A, Christian student who was a cheerleader.

In some ways, my friend’s mother wasn’t so far off. I ran for vice president of the student government and lost. (Silly me—my mother always told me to shoot for the top. What was I thinking?) And then I failed to land a spot on the homecoming court (my older sister had been crowned queen, and everyone had expected me to follow in her footsteps—at least before I got pregnant.). So yes, my high school life had, indeed, been ruined.

But my friend’s mother’s words served as all the motivation I needed to rebel against people’s assumptions about me and what my pregnancy would do to my life.

School had always come easily to me, so after my daughter was born, I focused on minimizing my time in class, getting great grades and ensuring my daughter had the richest, most loving environment possible.

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I took one day at a time and got lots of help from the women around me (my mother, my best friend’s mother, my grandmother and a woman I knew from church all helped watch my daughter while I was at school). Meanwhile, I stuck with (almost) all of my AP classes—and graduated second in my high school class.

At that point, I decided to ignore the established route to success—I was no longer welcome on it anyway—and forge my own path. This became a lens that, to this day, shapes my world view.

After graduation, I fully embraced the mentality of doing everything differently. I got married at the age of 18. I accepted a full scholarship at an unknown college, and I graduated in two years at the top of my class. Because I loved school, I applied for Ph.D. programs and accepted an assistantship at Auburn University. I didn’t really know what I would do with the degree, but I didn’t let that bother me.

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I discovered I had a gift for teaching and translated this into a job designing training programs. In that, I discovered my passion for organizational systems, which landed me a job at Google. There, I stumbled on my talent for strategic thinking and my love for speaking and writing. So I wrote a book about Google (the anti-corporate work environment), and I developed a vision for the world in which every person could find joy in his or her work. That philosophy and my unique approach helped me land a dream job in HR at Chanel.

I pinch myself every day because I can’t comprehend how this crazy, unexpected path could have led to a life I truly love.

I’m here because I learned to seek out life beyond the mainstream, because I’ve found the beauty in finding a different approach.

I received the most beautiful gift in my daughter, a gift I could only find by listening to myself and not to the thousands of people who had opinions about who I was and what they thought I was capable of becoming.

Ultimately, I cannot explain the magic of where I am today, except to say I was exceptionally blessed by the motivation to prove everyone wrong.

Julie Clow, author of The Work Revolution: Freedom and Excellence for All, is an advocate for unconventional thinking about work and life.

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